Expect pain, difficult choices, Owens says
By Reggie Ponder
The Daily Advance
Friday, January 21, 2011
North Carolina’s projected $3.7 billion budget shortfall will result in painful spending cuts and require difficult decisions by state lawmakers, state Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, told a group of area public officials and business leaders Friday.
Owens spoke at the annual Northeastern Legislative Summit held at The Pines in Elizabeth City. He said that in keeping with the “100” theme — Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Palestrant had mentioned earlier that the Chamber is 100 years old this year and using that as a theme — Owens predicted that 100 percent of the people would be unhappy with the upcoming state budget.
Lawmakers will find few places to cut the state budget because all the “low-lying fruit” has been cut in the last two years, Owens said.
He said 60 percent of the budget goes for education, which makes spending choices even more difficult.
Owens said that it’s “ridiculous” to talk about closing Elizabeth City State University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke — as one leader from the western part of the state had mentioned.
Owens was scheduled to be joined at Friday’s event by fellow state Reps. Tim Spear, D-Washington, and Annie Mobley, D-Hertford, and by state Sen. Ed Jones, D-Halifax.
However, because of family illnesses and conflicting schedules, Owens was the only area legislator to attend.
Addressing a project dear to the hearts of his constituents in Currituck, Owens said he hopes the “gap funding” for the proposed mid-county bridge will remain intact. Taking away that money would not help the general fund, he said.
All it means, he said, is that highway money slated for this region will go elsewhere.
“We will be in a defensive mode because of cuts that will be taking place,” Owens said.
Owens, who had reached the number two position in the House when it was controlled by Democrats, said he believes that House Republicans, who will take control when the Legislature reconvenes next week, have elected a good leadership team.
“I’ve got to say they have been very fair to me personally,” he said. “I’ve been pleased with the way they have treated me so far.”
The House leadership will have a tough time because of the challenging budget, he said.
On an issue to Elizabeth City, Edenton, Hertford and Winfall officials, Owens said the General Assembly likely will try to curtail annexation by cities and towns.
Owens said that while he is interested in tweaking annexation laws, states that have sharply limited annexation have seen their cities and towns “become slums.”
He said he favors raising the cap — now set at 100 — on charter schools but believes vouchers for private schools — which many Republicans would like to see implemented — would hurt public education.
He said there probably will be an effort in the Legislature to repeal the Racial Justice Act.
Although there are some things in that law that some people don’t support, “I hope that doesn’t happen,” Owens said.
Despite those and other legislative initiatives, Owens said the most important issue for all lawmakers next session will be the budget and job creation.
He said he and other area legislators have worked hard on basic infrastructure for northeastern North Carolina.
A lot of that is now in place because legislators have worked as a team, he said.
He said he will work with Republican lawmakers in the upcoming term as much as possible. The two parties need to work together, he said, because there are “bigger problems and issues than trying to make each other look bad.”
Owens said he hopes legislators can “find some middle ground” on a GOP proposal to require voters to display an identification card at the polls. He said he wants to stop voter fraud but would hate to see someone 90 years old not be able to vote because they forget their ID card, or someone who owes child support be afraid to go vote because they would have to show ID at the polls.
He said there also is likely to be a push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
He said he believes the amendment is unnecessary since state law already prohibits same-sex marriage.
Answering a question about funding for the N.C. Rural Center, Owens said he thought funding would continue but he predicted that local matching funds might have to increase.
He said he would work to have “a graduated scale” so that lower-wealth counties would not be overburdened by the matching funds requirements.
He said there probably will be less money available for nonprofits in the upcoming budget since basic state services have to come first.
Addressing the issue of redistricting, Owens said he is in favor of a nonpartisan commission working on redistricting. But he said Democrats drew districts in their favor 10 years ago and Republicans likely will do the same now.
Aside from partisan issues, however, rural North Carolina “is in for a tough road in my opinion” because of the increasing influence of urban areas, Owens said.
That will continue to be the case regardless of which party controls the legislature, he said.
Richard Bunch of the Edenton-Chowan Chamber of Commerce read a letter from Spear, who was absent because of a serious illness in his family.
Spear’s letter said job creation is a top priority, including tax credits and lowering he capital gains tax and looking closely at regulations. He endorsed continued highway and continuation of funding for low wealth school districts.
The state should consolidate and eliminate outdated and nonperforming programs, Spear’s letter stated.
“Everything will be on the table,” Spear said. “There will be no sacred cows in this session.”
Contact Reggie Ponder at rponder@dailyadvance.com