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Interview with Speaker of the House Joe Hackney

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Workers were chiseling away on the final touches of the state seal outside the General Assembly last week when the Indy sat down with Speaker of the House Joe Hackney. The Orange County Democrat previewed the short session with us, speaking about the budget, education and ethics.

Independent Weekly: How can citizens grade the work of the Legislature this summer? What do you want to be able to say you've accomplished by the end of the short session?

Speaker Hackney: We want to spur job creation. We want to preserve the core functions of our universities, community colleges and public schools from damage. We want to balance the budget as we do 100 percent of the time. We want to preserve the state's excellent reputation for fiscal integrity and our AAA bond rating. We want to take some aggressive steps on ethics legislation. We want to make some additional progress on fraud detection, particularly in Medicaid. Those are some of the things.

Do you expect to raise any taxes, whether it be the cigarette and alcohol tax, or is this summer more about reducing spending?

I do not anticipate any tax increases. I'm just assessing the mood of the members. We raised taxes last year, with great difficulty coming together on a package. There's unlikely to be much support for that as a solution this time.

So where does that leave you with having to make cuts?

I think the number that the governor used and that we've been using is in the neighborhood of $700 million. There are some very big variables out there. We're counting on a $499 million F-map extension, it's called, from the Congress, which has not actually occurred yet, but most state budgets that have been enacted have counted that in, so we're doing that as well.

I think the state agencies and the universities and the schools all have contingency plans for cuts at the different levels. We'll see the revenues when they're actually counted fully in the coming weeks. We have better information week by week as we go along. There could be some increase in sales tax receipts as we go along also. Until you actually enact it, it's always a work in progress.

How will education be impacted this session?

The goal is to preserve education and teaching positions to the maximum extent possible. Most everyone would say that's our top goal in the budget. Today we have about 95,000 teachers in North Carolina. We were able to get through the last two years without many job losses of teachers in filled positions. In Chatham County we had none, for instance. In Forsyth County we had none. In Wake County they made different choices at the local level, so they had some. I'm not sure they had to have had any. This year we're certainly going to try to get through this budget year also protecting the teachers and the classrooms to the maximum extent possible.

What does this summer hold for the corrections system and addressing the problem of recidivism?

The corrections system has been hit very hard by the cuts, perhaps harder than some of the other agencies. We have tried to preserve programs like Sentencing Services. We've tried to support the governor's recommendations on getting the parole officers, the numbers and the equipment and perhaps most importantly of all, the technology connection, so probation officers can know what's happening with their folks in other jurisdictions. There's some good things happening there, but they've been hit hard by the cuts.

How will ethics reform be addressed and what beyond the issue of illegal campaign donations needs to be considered?

We have a whole package being developed; it includes three bills that we passed already last year that the House has passed, that the Senate didn't feel like it had time to take up. Then in addition to that you have the response to the Citizens United decision, where we hope to put in place pretty stringent reporting and disclosure requirements as to any corporate expenditures of money for campaigns. The governor has sent over several issues having to do with reporting and perhaps barring of campaign contributions for certain categories. We're trying to negotiate with the Senate an expansion of public financing. There's a lot of activity there.

What can the General Assembly do this summer to create more jobs?

We have been doing a pretty good job of bringing in high tech, biotech pharmaceutical and technology jobs, particularly into the urban areas. We continue to lose jobs is the manufacturing sector. What we're beginning to see is a turnaround, uptick in sales, uptick in housing market. So we're very cautiously optimistic that as a state we're coming successfully out of this recession. We're going to try to push us out, as quickly as we can, anything the Legislature can do, particularly with small business. If we can spur some hiring in the small-business sector this session it will be a good thing for the state.

Is there a benchmark or a number of jobs you are hoping to create this session?

From 2000 to 2010 we've lost about 250,000 jobs, and our jobs are about the same as they were in 2000–2001. The predication would be this year we'd create about 30,000 new jobs, which would start us on the road back. It'd be great to double or triple that. I don't know if we can achieve that, but this Legislature ought to try.

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