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The Daily Tar Heel

General Assembly Convenes

The 2002 short session of the N.C. General Assembly will focus primarily on the $2 billion budget deficit.

While there was little discussion on the session's first day about the state's budget deficit -- which has grown to approximately $2 billion for the 2002-03 fiscal year -- it is sure to be the main topic of discussion for lawmakers in the next few months.

The budget crisis, one of the worst in state history, is the result of both increased spending for some state programs and decreased revenue collections due to the state's sluggish economy.

As a result, lawmakers will be forced to consider budget cuts to all corners of state government.

"We're about to deal with a major economic crisis in our state ... but there are solutions that can be obtained," said House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, during the hourlong House session Tuesday.

The legislature's short session typically lasts only a couple of months, and legislative leaders said Tuesday that they hope this session will be no exception.

"It's important to do (our job) in a timely manner," Black said.

Last year, lawmakers stayed in session almost a full calendar year to deal with similar budget woes and the redrawing of state district lines.

Last week, Gov. Mike Easley unveiled his own plan for how to fill the state's fiscal hole. Easley's budget called for a combination of cuts and spending increases for some education initiatives.

Most notably, Easley's budget also called for a state lottery, which he expects to generate $250 million during the next fiscal year. But Easley's budget has already come under fire from both Republican lawmakers and various lobbying groups for his inclusion of the lottery and its use for various existing education initiatives, including funding UNC-system enrollment growth.

"The governor gave us this so-called budget that once again isn't balanced, and it's up to the legislature to fix that," said Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine, R-New Hanover.

State lawmakers have already begun to make their own plans to deal with the budget deficit. Legislative appropriations committees began meeting weeks before session officially convened this week.

Legislative leaders have said they might need to cut $695 million from education to fill the fiscal hole. Those cuts are more than what Easley proposed in his budget, and he has vowed to veto a budget that harms classroom instruction.

But while the state legislature might make changes to Easley's budget proposal, Black said the legislature will try to ensure that education is shielded from the state's fiscal crisis. Black said, "We're going to be very careful not to do anything that will affect our teachers and the classroom."

Staff Writer Mike Gorman

contributed to this article.

The State & National Editor can be reached at

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