As the 148th N.C. General Assembly convened in Raleigh Wednesday amidst the worst economic conditions in at least a generation, the institution's leaders sounded a note of determination that ought to remain a focus as this session deals with a $2 billion budget shortfall.
House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, a veteran of 14 terms, was re-elected as presiding officer and urged the 120-member House “to do something worthy to be remembered.” The state made enormous progress because previous legislatures committed resources to public schools and higher education. Those investments must continue, especially now.
In the 50-member Senate, Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, also urged lawmakers to make tough decisions to protect key state services rather than cutting to the bone as neighboring states have. “I would encourage you not to find your way out of this difficulty with cuts alone,” he said.
And Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton reminded his former colleagues that North Carolina had made strides because of significant spending on education, medical and research facilities. “These,” he said, “are institutions that set North Carolina apart.”
Those reminders of how the state has invested in education provided a welcome background as legislators steeled themselves for the difficult job that lies ahead. North Carolina has a $21 billion budget that needs a 10 percent cut just to get through this fiscal year. Next year's may require more cuts.
It's important to remember that North Carolina has squared up to difficult times before, finding ways to trim and balance the budget without causing irreversible harm to essential services. It has an $800 million rainy day fund to help soften the blow, and a forthcoming federal stimulus package may help.
It's also encouraging that Gov. Bev Perdue, herself a legislative veteran, has shown a take-charge style of leadership and is demanding more ideas. Wednesday she asked administration officials to come up with more programs to cut to meet shortfalls rather than make across-the-board cuts, which could harm schools or those least able to care for themselves.
That's the right approach. This is going to be a hard year, but legislative and executive branch leaders clearly have the right things in mind as they sort through the early options for filling big budget gaps.