ATLANTA -- After six months of squabbling, North Carolina legislators have finally resolved their differences over the state's 1992 budget, agreeing to a plan that raises taxes and cuts spending in equal measure to solve an anticipated $1.2 billion deficit.
Negotiators from the Senate and the House of Representatives settled on a $7.8 billion budget for fiscal 1992 late Wednesday that calls for about $650 million in tax increases and about $650 million in reduced funding for existing programs, a spokesman for House Speaker Daniel Blue, D-Raleigh, said yesterday.
Rep. Blue's spokesman, Chris Fitzsimon, said he expects the plan to be approved by the full House and Senate today and tomorrow. The plan includes legislative approval of $157.5 million of new general obligation debt.
"There are no major disputes remaining on the budget, and we expect it to receive final passage by Saturday," Mr. Fitzsimon said. Because Gov. James Martin does not have veto power over the budget, he added, the bill will become law when formally approved by the General Assembly.
Just a month ago, the Senate's Finance Committee approved raising revenues by $610 million and slashing spending by $600 million. But soon thereafter an impasse developed as the House leadership opposed the substantial increases in the state's corporate, personal income, and cigarette tax sought by the senators. That impasse threatened to become a crisis with the state's new fiscal year beginning July 1.
The plan agreed to Wednesday is acceptable to both chambers, Mr. Fitzsimon said, because it preserves most of the tax increases being sought by Senators while preserving some programs important to Representatives. In addition, the $100 million difference between the $1.2 billion deficit and the $1.3 billion combination of cuts and tax increases will permit funding of popular new programs in education, infant mortality, and child-abuse prevention, he said.
At the center of the budget agreement is a one-cent increase in North Carolina's sales tax to 6%, raising $450 million annually. In addition, the legislators agreed to lift corporate and individual taxes to 7.75% from the current 7% level, bringing in an extra $136 million a year. Taxes on cigarettes also will be increased to 5 cents from 2 cents, generating $21 million.
Finally, there will be a smattering of other charges to state residents, including tuition increases at state universities, generating $30 million, and special increases in sales taxes on boats, planes, and mixed drinks, which will raise about $5 million.
The budget cuts, which will eliminate 3,500 jobs, include substantial reductions in the state's overall spending for education, which currently account for about two-thirds of it outlays.
Donald E. Horton, special assistant to state Treasurer Harlan Boyles, commended the lawmakers for finally putting together a budget at the end of a legislative session that began in January. "It's been a long and tough road, but the legislators should be praised for finally agreeing to a budget that splits the pain between spending reductions and tax increases," he said.
Mr. Horton, who also is assistant secretary to the state's Local Government Commission, which oversees all debt issuance in North Carolina, said the budget accord will allow the commission to move forward with two general obligation bond issues.
The first issue, $45 million of so-called "two-thirds" bonds will likely be sold by the end of October, he said, with proceeds used to fund various building projects involving educational facilities, state office buildings, and parks. These bonds can be sold without the voter approval generally required for GO debt, under a North Carolina law that limits such issuance to two-thirds of the amount of debt reduction achieved in the previous fiscal year.
The other GO issue, $112.5 million of bonds for prisons, probably will not be sold until the beginning of 1992, Mr. Horton said. A total of $200 million of GOs for prisons were approved by voters last November. However, legislative approval must also be obtained for the bonds to be sold.
George Leung, managing director of state ratings at Moody's Investors Service, also praised the legislators for resolving North Carolina's budget impasse.
"The budget involved some difficult choices, and [the lawmakers] have acted responsibly in dealing with the problems facing the state," he said. "Evenly dividing the solution between tax increases and spending cuts is a step in the right direction."
Arthur J. Grisi, senior vice president at Standard & Poor's, said, "Based on what we see, nothing in the planned budget will affect the state's AAA rating." Mr. Grisi said the rating agency would have to see the final version of the budget to assess its long-term implications for the state before it would consider revising the negative outlook it placed on the state's credit rating in August.
Both Moody's and Standard & Poor's Corp. rate North Carolina's $615 million of GO debt triple-A.