With the 2009-10 General Assembly reconvening on Wednesday, Jan. 28, here are five big questions that will set the tone for the upcoming session.
How strong of a force will Gov. Perdue be in shaping the agenda?
Conventional wisdom tells us that with Perdue having a background in the legislature, she will have a good relationship with House and Senate leadership, making smooth sailing for negotiations between the two branches. But perception presents her an immediate task to define her own list of priorities in order to attain an identity, separate to any notion that she is a pawn of her former Senate leaders Basnight and Rand.
Perdue’s attempts to assert her own independence was seen in week one when she took decision-making ability from politically appointed state Department of Transportation (DOT) Board cronies, who had been a base of power for Basnight, and to a larger extent, Rand. It was a bold move that sent a message: there is a new sheriff in town and she is going to be in charge.
Perdue is reaping early benefits from the amazingly low expectations due to outgoing Gov. Mike Easley’s seeming contempt for public access. All Perdue has to do is basically show her face in public a couple of times (as she has done already with frequent press conferences and impromptu visits to state facilities) and she looks infinitesimally more active and involved than her predecessor.
How will the $2 billion budget gap be filled?
Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing Gov. Perdue and the General Assembly is how they will construct the budget. Leaders will have to make up for the estimated $2 billion revenue shortfall caused by both the economic downturn and irresponsible spending practices of the last six years. Many departments have already been asked to reduce their budgets by seven percent. It also appears that Gov. Perdue seems to be banking on a huge bailout from the federal government in order to fill the gap.
But will there be any tax increases? In 2001, when the state faced a similar budget shortfall, sales and income taxes were increased causing North Carolina’s growth rate after the recession to lag behind the national average. Already this year, Senator Basnight has come out saying he is supporting higher cigarette and alcohol taxes, while other leaders’ actions have tried to slow play the tax increase mantra. But do not be surprised if later this year legislative leaders come hat in hand to threaten the public with “catastrophic” cuts in education, unless they raise taxes. Just yesterday it was announced the General Assembly was exploring taxing downloads on songs, ringtones and other technology products.
Will anything be made of the 21st Century Transportation Committee’s recommendations?
Late in his term, in an attempt to quell a potentially thorny political issue for Democrats in an election year, Gov. Easley created the 21st Century Transportation Study Committee. His ambition was for the committee to take a good, long, had look at the problems with the state transportation system and how it is funded.
The committee issued its final report a few weeks ago and in its recommendations was a litany of tax increases; increasing the gas and Highway Use taxes. It also included increasing vehicle registration fees, as well as creating a new tax based on the amount of miles traveled. It spoke of establishing toll roads, and on and on.
Given the condition of the economy, will the General Assembly have the appetite to call for higher taxes to fund new transportation projects? The state supposedly has a $65 billion deficit in financing the building of new roads. Does this issue get staved off for a few years until the economy is better or is considered urgent?
Will any other problems be fixed?
With the large budget shortfall figuratively taking up all the oxygen in the room, will there be the resources, and commitment, to solve some of the state’s other problems? The mental health system is still in shambles. The state health plan is woefully underfunded by at least $300 million. The flaws in the probation system have been tragically exposed. And North Carolina’s dropout rate remains staggeringly high, with nearly three out of 10 students in ninth grade not finishing high school within four years.
All of them are serious problems that need to be addressed, but with the budget gap looming, the amount of resources to put towards these programs seem to be few and far between.
Will the GOP be the loyal opposition?
In years past, many members of the Republican minority in the House and Senate have felt its best governing tactic is to be part of the go-along, get-along gang – hoping for crumbs to be dropped down from House or Senate leadership for individual members’ pet projects in exchange for not opposing Democratic plans. With the Republicans again in the minority, will this be the year that the GOP gets together as a bloc and decides its best and clearest path to the majority is to be an organized loyal opposition? Or will they continue down their path that blurs the lines between the parties, making it harder and harder to distinguish themselves from their Democratic counterparts – and thus entrenching their minority status?
The challenges facing this upcoming General Assembly session seem to be plentiful and it’s going to be a very interesting year as key players jostle for position, not only for now but also for future election cycles. Pull up a chair and grab your favorite beverage, it’s going to be a fun show to watch.