05/04/14 — Politicians, residents and community leaders gather

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Politicians, residents and community leaders gather

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on May 4, 2014 1:50 AM

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Former Wayne County Commissioner Andy Anderson, left, talks to current board member Joe Daughtery before "Eggs and Issues" Friday.

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Rep. John Bell points as he speaks to those gathered at the "Eggs and Issues" breakfast Friday morning at Lane Tree.

Money that otherwise could provide salary increases for teachers and other state employees is instead being diverted to plug massive budget holes created by Medicaid costs.

That is just one of the reasons it is vital those costs be reined in, members of the area's legislative delegation told a packed house  Friday morning at the Lane Tree Conference Center.

The five local legislators responded to questions on subjects ranging from Medicaid to teacher tenure to infrastructure during the "Eggs and Issues" breakfast sponsored by the News-Argus.

The lawmakers, Sens. Don Davis and Louis Pate and Reps. John Bell, Larry Bell and Jimmy Dixon, also encouraged the audience to contact them with concerns -- or even visit them in Raleigh.

While party differences surfaced a few times -- on unemployment benefits and Medicaid expansion -- the lawmakers pointed to how well they work together.

Specifically, they pulled together to head off a wind farm facility in eastern North Carolina that would have endangered the mission of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

It is an effort that must continue in order for the state to safeguard the military installations that are economic engines, they said.

On the issue of unemployment, Democrats Larry Bell and Davis opposed cutting the amount received and how long a person could receive benefits. The Republicans favored creating jobs so that people can work instead of simply receiving checks.

Larry Bell and Davis said the state had made a major mistake when it declined to accept more money from the federal government to expand Medicaid.

However, the Republican members placed the state's budget woes on the federal insurance program for the nation's poorest citizens.

"For the past I don't know how many years, we have had budget shortfalls each year to the tune of up to $500 million in North Carolina that we suddenly had to make up that money to have a balanced state budget," said Pate, who has become a leading spokesman in the General Assembly on the issue. "That is where the real rub comes in in Medicaid because it is a real budget buster every year.

"That is why we cannot afford to raise teacher pay or state employees' pay. So that is what we are faced with almost every year. Now this year, the estimate is we are only going to be somewhere between $64 million and $150 million in the hole."

That is not "chump change," but "big time" money, he said.

"It is a smaller portion of our state budget, but if we are, in fact, short, then we are going to have to make up that money," Pate said. "It is going to have to come at the expense of pay raises because that is about the only money that we have to use. So it is very important for all of us."

If state employees cannot get a raise, they cannot go out and spend money at local businesses. That affects the economy, Pate said.

"That not only affects the state budget, but the budgets and businesses models of the small businesses, particularly the retailers," Pate said.

John Bell agreed that Medicaid is not just a state issue, but is a local and business issue as well.

"If you look at what is happening with Medicaid, it literally dictates what we are able to do with the state budget," Bell said. "So when you are talking about raises for teachers, when you are talking about raises for our Highway Patrol and for state employees across the board, depending on the shortfalls of Medicaid, (they) are actually dependent on whether we can do that or not."

Speaking to people in the audience whose agencies receive state funds, Bell said it is going to get to the point that the Medicaid shortfall is going to dictate whether "you are cut or not."

"It is that big a deal," Bell said. "I am glad we did not accept the Medicaid deal because we simply cannot afford it."

The legislators agreed that fixes are not easy to come by.

Larry Bell, who is in his seventh term in the state House, said it had been a problem since he was a Sampson County commissioner.

"It continues to be a problem, but one of the things that really appalls me is that our state did not expand Medicaid when we have the money from the federal government, when we had the opportunity to do that," he said. "I see people on almost a daily basis coming around saying they can't receive services. I think part of that is because we did not receive those funds."

Davis agreed.

Because of that refusal, more people will end up going to the emergency room for service that will drive costs up even more, Davis said.

That is an area that needs to be examined, Pate said. People should be encouraged to use urgent care facilities instead of an emergency room. Also, people must be encouraged to practice a healthier lifestyle.

"In my opinion, I think the first thing that we absolutely have to do is stop politicizing the issue," Davis said. "When shortfalls existed before under past leadership, it became the center of a lot of politics. We know that.

"Well, guess what? Shortfalls still exist and whether we are talking about the magnitude of it, it still exists until we really make an absolute commitment to put politics aside, and let's really tackle this issue."