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Rowan legislators uneasy about Easley's proposed budget, 'sin tax' increases

By Sara Gregory
Salisbury Post
Rowan County’s state legislators have mixed feelings about Gov. Mike Easley’s proposal to increase taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to raise teacher salaries and expand funding for mental health reform.
In his proposed state budget, Easley would increase teacher salaries by about 7 percent and asked legislators to approve a 20-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the pay hike.
In all, Easley’s plan would increase the state budget by $1 billion to $21.4 billion.
The governor’s proposal on Monday wasn’t what legislators were expecting, said N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, who added that even the Democrats he’s talked to were “shocked.”
“The way they were just talking awhile ago, it seemed like they would throw out the budget and do our own,” Brock said.
Rep. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan, echoed the sentiment that Easley’s proposal wasn’t what House legislators were expecting.
“I think it’s at odds with the House somewhat,” she said. “We might have the same long-range goal, but I think we’ve found a different way to get there.”
Easley’s recommendations are adjustments to the two-year budget passed last year. Legislators heard the changes when they reconvened Monday.
While the governor has proposed increasing teacher salaries by 7 percent, other state employees would receive a $1,000 bonus and a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment that would increase salaries by about 4 percent. The discrepancy between the salary increases for teachers and other state employees has been pointed at as one problem with the budget proposal.
Coates said that while she isn’t opposed to increasing teacher salaries, she isn’t sure if the increases are fair to state employees.
“Seems like they always get the short end of the stick,” she said.
Brock said he’s already heard from many state employees who say they aren’t happy with the budget proposal.
The public teacher pay increase is designed to raise those salaries to the national average.
The timing of governor’s request could make it more difficult for the tax increases to pass.
“I don’t see increasing the budget by a billion dollars in a time of economic slowdown,” said Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan.
Although the state will end this fiscal year with a $152 million surplus, there are concerns about increasing the budget at the same time as many residents are cutting back.
“This is a time that we need to be tightening our belts,” Coates said. “Everybody’s having to do that now. At the state level we’ve got to do the same.”
The state is feeling the same money crunch as transportation costs are rising with gas prices.
And many are against the idea of raising taxes in an election year. House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, told legislators he didn’t anticipate any tax increases this year, Coates said.
“I don’t see in an election year people getting excited about increasing any taxes,” Steen said.
Easley might not have the political capital in the legislature to accomplish what he wants, Brock said.
“There’s not a good working relationship with the governor,” he said. “His support is very low.
“He knows how to get elected but when it comes to policy making, he’s very, very weak.”
Changes are expected before the final budget is approved.
“I think there will be significant changes between when the House and the Senate get through with it,” Coates said. “We’ll come together with a meeting of the minds.”
And Brock said Republicans, who are a minority in both houses, will work to give input on the budget process. Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet today to discuss mental health reform.

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