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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Lawmakers like much of what they see in budget, with some concerns

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New Hanover County’s legislative delegation has mixed reactions to the state budget about to be delivered to Gov. Pat McCrory. The delegation’s three Republicans say they are generally satisfied, although certain items give them pause. Democrat Rep. Susi Hamilton has more reservations, although she pointed out when contacted Tuesday morning that she hadn’t had the 492-page document long — it was released Monday after weeks of haggling between the House and Senate.

She was not alone in her concern about the provision to extend the sales tax to labor costs related to repair, installation and maintenance of automobiles, appliances and other items that were subject to sales tax when purchased.

“I just feel this is really ironic, from the folks who ran on no new taxes — well, here we are.” Hamilton also said she was disheartened that lawmakers chose to kill the renewable-energy tax credit while at the same time preserving the tax breaks for jet fuel and NASCAR.

But Hamilton and her Republican colleagues were unanimous in lauding the inclusion of $35 million each of the next two years for the Wilmington port. The money will be used for infrastructure and other improvements.

Aside from the $30 million for film grants, which he worked on, Rep. Ted Davis said he was particularly pleased to see money for teacher assistants and driver education restored.

“The House was very adamant about two things in the budget, and that was teacher assistants and driver’s ed.” He noted that the teacher assistant funding will continue beyond the two-year budget cycle. The budget restores driver education for two years.

“Those were the things I heard a lot from constituents,” he said.

Rep. Rick Catlin’s pet project this session was restoration of the medical tax deduction taken away from senior citizens last year. With an amendment from state Sen. Julia Howard, R-Davie, the deduction now applies to anyone with high health care expenses.

Keeping teacher assistants and the $750 bonus for teachers and other state employees also were high on Catlin’s list. “I’d rather it have been a raise,” he said, but added that it is at least something.

Sen. Michael Lee echoed his colleagues’ concerns about the expanded sales tax but said he also understands the motivation. The tax will go into a fund that will be split among rural counties with limited sales tax bases; it was a compromise reached after urban and tourism counties, including New Hanover, objected to a proposed redistribution of the sales tax.

“Anytime the state expands the tax base, I get concerned,” he said. “But overall it will be a $350 million net tax cut. [The tax expansion] is just unfair, to me — our area is primarily a service-based economy, although we are working to change that.”

But Lee said he generally sees the budget as a successful compromise — especially the move to eliminate a $216 million annual transfer from the Highway Trust Fund to the general fund — and he believes it will pass this week.

For years, some highway fund money has been reallocated for certain general government expenses. The legislature’s action will mean more money for building and maintaining the state’s roads and bridges, Lee said.

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