Education leaders told state senators yesterday that they can't handle more cuts in public education. Anti-tax activists told them that taxpayers can't handle more tax increases.
The senators charged with balancing the state budget said that they don't have an easy answer for the state's budget troubles.
Without an increase in cigarette or alcohol taxes or a state lottery, Senate leaders say they must cut an additional $600 million from the state's $15 billion budget - $300 million of it from education - to meet worsening revenue projections for 2003-04 and 2004-05.
"We've still got to cut around $600 million out of that," said Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland.
After three consecutive years of budget cuts, education leaders said they can't keep additional cuts from affecting classrooms.
Jim Causby, the superintendent of the Johnston County schools, said that a $25 million cut in the Senate's version of the budget would eliminate more than 1,000 teacher assistants, and a $25 million cut in the House budget would eliminate more than 500 vocational education teachers.
Dr. Stuart Fountain, a member of the state community-college board, said that faculty salaries are already abysmal at community colleges.
"If these new cuts do take place, we're talking about 3,400 additional (class) sections that will not be offered," Fountain said.
Molly Broad, the president of the University of North Carolina system, said that the system has had an enrollment increase of 14,200 students over the past two years, with 5,500 more students expected this fall.
"That is bigger than the entire enrollment of 10 of our 16 campuses. This is unprecedented enrollment growth," Broad said. "It is no longer achievable for us to protect classroom instruction. Each round of cuts has made it more difficult."
Cynthia McKinney, the president of the N.C. Association of Educators, told the senators that the 70,000-teacher group supports the call for more revenues.
"It is not OK to cut $600 million from the general fund, or $300 million from education," McKinney said. "We should not pit teacher assistants against vocational teachers.... We need more revenue for public education."
Legislators face a June 30 deadline to extend $384 million worth of sales and income taxes that are already part of both the House and Senate budgets. Both those taxes are currently scheduled to expire with the end of the fiscal year.
But 70 activists from Citizens for a Sound Economy, a statewide anti-tax group, told the Senate members that they oppose any new taxes and a state lottery. Members of the group wore stickers that said "Kids Yes, Lottery No" and "Don't Raise My Taxes."
"My budget was cut last year, too," said Jonathan Hill, the group's state director. "When you raised taxes, my budget was cut."
"If you don't have it, don't spend it," said Lynnelle Alsup, a member from Surry County. "And stop asking the citizens of North Carolina for more and more and more."
Members of the group voiced their opposition to a lottery as well.
"I smell the lottery rat around here somewhere," said Dennis Riddell of Alamance County. "A lottery sends the wrong signal to the children of North Carolina.... It would be a disservice for the state of North Carolina to resort to a numbers racket."
Roy Cordato of the conservative John Locke Foundation challenged legislators to put a tax increase to a vote of the public as they have proposed to do with a lottery. "Offer voters the same courtesy with respect to any tax increases you may propose," Cordato said.
But the Rev. Mark Creech of the N.C. Christian Action League said that he could support higher taxes on cigarettes and alcohol instead of a lottery, saying that alcohol-related accidents cost the state $3.7 billion a year. "Cigarette smoking and alcohol cost us all a great deal of money," he said. "If people are going to participate in the vice, they ought to have to pay the price."
Sen. Walter Dalton, D-Rutherford, a co-chairman of the Senate budget committee, said he hopes legislators have the courage that Gov. O. Max Gardner did during the Depression, when he implemented North Carolina's sales tax.
"That wouldn't be popular with many people. But in doing that, he kept the schools of North Carolina open," Dalton said.
Still, Republican budget and finance leaders in the state House continued to insist that the House would not support increased taxes or a lottery. "We've told them and our speakers have told them that we don't have the votes to do additional revenue," said Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, a co-chairwoman of the Finance Committee. "There is no will to do sin taxes, and I don't know that the numbers are there to do a lottery."