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Wednesday, 11 May 2011 20:28

Democrats ‘struck speechless’ by state budget cuts

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Under the newly verdant trees shading the lawn of the historic Haywood County Courthouse, 29 people silently lined the sidewalk last Friday, sending the message that they were “struck speechless” by slashed state funding proposed by House Republicans.

Their signs bore slogans decrying the deep cuts handed down to schools, universities, the elderly and environmental programs, among others.

Pacing in the sun on the courthouse steps behind them, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was anything but speechless. He’s the group’s spokesperson, and it’s probably fair to say that he’s livid about the cuts.

The phrase that he keeps returning to, and indeed the one that he has trotted out on the House floor throughout the budget debate to characterize the Republican’s approach to cuts, is “ready, shoot, aim.”

There’s no money, he said, he gets it. But there must be a line drawn somewhere, and he is concerned that the money-slashing sword is being drawn too quickly and wielded too loosely.

“We’re talking about fundamental services that are being cut to our people,” said Rapp. “These cuts are draconian, destructive and deeply disappointing.”

The ones he seems most viscerally worked up about are the ones that affect children and the elderly — the House plan calls for $1.2 billion to go from school funding and 50 percent of the money senior centers get would be taken away. Project Care, an in-home service for the elderly that got its start in Haywood County, would be eliminated completely. More at 4, a preschool program would take a big hit, as would its early development companion, Smart Start.

Rapp tends to refer to such educational reductions as “eating our seed corn,” and, he said, he thinks it’s going to have a negative impact on the future.

Rapp and his fellow Democrats have a plan to stave off some of the slash-and-burn that would sweep across the state if a similar budget emerges from fiscal wrangling in the Senate later this month. Rather than cutting the state’s sales tax by a penny, keep the sales tax at its current level. A one-cent sales tax billed as temporary to solve state budget shortfall two years ago was set to expire this year. Keeping it in place would at least defend schools from some of the more painful and deleterious blows.

“Nine-hundred million of that $1.2 billion could be erased by simply continuing that one-cent sales tax,” said Rapp.

The idea, though, isn’t likely to get much traction in a General Assembly that’s ruled by Republicans, many of whom ran on a no-tax-increase platform of fiscal conservatism, or at least promised a lightened tax load.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who bumped out incumbent Democrat John Snow last November, is one of Rapp’s Senate counterparts. He’s not going for the sales tax extension, and his Republican colleagues, he said, are unlikely to do so, either.

“It was a temporary tax for two years and it expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it,” said Davis.

If all goes to plan, he expects that he and his Senate colleagues may be proffering their own budget — similar, he said, to the House offering — within a few weeks.

Davis concedes that these cuts aren’t easy to swallow, but he maintains that, for now, they’re necessary.

“We’re not too excited about cutting good programs, but there’s only so much waste, fraud and abuse in the budget,” said Davis.

Davis said that he is hearing pleas from constituents, however.

“The magnitude of this problem is significant. I have lots and lots of people calling me, writing me letters, emailing me, telling me that they know we have some serious problems, but don’t cut my programs,” said Davis. “This is not easy.”

For Davis, the loss of legitimate programs is lamentable but necessary to right the state’s listing fiscal ship. He’s hopeful that things will soon get better, good programs can be restored and rainy day funds replenished. But today, even a great program may not be great enough to stay around.

“We cannot fix our state budget without touching those items, so some programs are really getting the ax,” said Davis. “But you know, nothing is a good deal if you can’t pay for it.”

Rapp, however, said the cuts have become unpalatable.

“I don’t think the average citizen anticipated the depth of cuts that they’re making,” Rapp said.

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