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The Senate gave educators and economic development experts an opportunity Monday to plead for no more budget cuts in the next two years, but they had to share the floor with about 60 people from an anti-tax group who showed up to oppose any tax hikes. Senate budget writers allowed several members from North Carolina Citizens for a Sound Economy to make their case that the state should rein in spending, instead of adopting a lottery or raising taxes.
About 25 school superintendents joined an equal number of community college presidents and several UNC chancellors to impress upon legislators that further budget cuts would reverse the gains they have made in student performance and in training workers in a tough economy. All three systems are seeing rising numbers of students, but the money they get for enrollment growth is ending up supplanting budget cuts.
"We cannot sustain cuts at this magnitude and provide for the increased numbers of students who are coming here," said UNC President Molly Broad.
But Dennis Riddell, a member of the anti-tax group, said that the state has yet to get serious about curbing spending in tough times. Riddell, 46, a father of eight from Alamance County, said he has had to cut his expenses to get by, and the state should too.
"If that's proper for a family, I don't think it's foolish for the state," Riddell said.
Others contended that raising taxes would hurt an economic recovery. They said a lottery for education, as Gov. Mike Easley has advocated, would send the wrong message to children.
One speaker, Andrea Harris, president of the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, said the Senate should eliminate corporate tax breaks.
The hearing came as Senate and House budget writers remain deadlocked over passing a budget.
The House's latest $14.8 billion plan includes cuts to health and human services, education and other services that senators say would cause too much harm. The Senate has produced a $15.1 billion plan that doesn't cut as deeply, but doesn't cover what Senate budget analysts project as a $628 million shortfall in revenues for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Those analysts say the Senate could need to plug a $1.5 billion hole in the budget's second year.
Senate Democratic leaders have suggested that a lottery or an increase in the tobacco or alcoholic beverage taxes would help solve the problem. But House leaders say they can't raise more revenues, and they are using $510 million in one-time federal budget relief money to get by.
Only a few House members trickled in to listen in on the hearing. Two said what they heard wasn't going to help break the impasse.
"It didn't change my mind," said House Republican Leader Joe Kiser, who sits on a committee of House and Senate members negotiating a compromise budget. "We just don't have the votes in the House to do what the Senate wants us to do, and we keep telling them that."
About half of the Senate showed up for the hearing. Those who spoke tended to challenge the viewpoints of the anti-tax advocates.
One speaker noted that she received a sound education in the 1960s though she sat in classrooms of 30 or more students. Sen. Walter Dalton, a Rutherfordton Democrat and Appropriations co-chairman, responded that education took up 70 percent of the state budget then, compared with 58 percent today.
Dalton closed the hearing with a history lesson about one of his district's favorite sons, the late Gov. O. Max Gardner. Dalton credited Gardner for helping create the state's first sales tax, which Dalton said helped keep the schools open during the Depression.
"I hope we keep the same kind of priorities he had, because education and economic development go hand in hand," Dalton said. "As I said before, we're not doing a two-year budget. We're doing a 20-year budget."