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Wrenn turning purple?

The political optics of the state budget debate are not going the way Republicans would like when conservative strategist and Jesse Helms acolyte Carter Wrenn is writing blog posts that read like they could have been written by, well, a Democrat.

On his Talking About Politics blog earlier this week, Wrenn took Speaker Thom Tillis to task for trying to claim that a fee increase does not equal a tax increase.

Today’s new breed of politicians are a lot more versatile than the old-timers most of us grew up with.

In the old days when Democratic politicians raised ‘fees’ – like the fee you pay for your car registration – they’d argue stubbornly it was not a tax increase and Republican politicians would argue back, 'The money comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets and goes to government and lands in the same bank account as taxes – so how’s that not a tax.'

Last week that old-fashioned clarity vanished in a heartbeat.

Suddenly, in Raleigh Democratic Leader Joe Hackney was arguing for all he’s worth that ‘fee increases’ are tax increases and standing eye to eye with him Republican Speaker Thom Tillis was arguing back, 'No way – saying his plan to raise fees $100 million was absolutely not a tax increase.'

So, in Raleigh, we have Joe Hackney sounding like Jesse Helms and Thom Tillis sounding like Jim Hunt – who’d have thought such versatility was possible?

Today, Wrenn wrote that Gov. Bev Perdue is winning the argument over the GOP's plan to cut thousands of teachers' jobs in order to shave a penny of the sales tax.

Speaker Tillis may be rolling his budget through the State House, flattening Democratic Leader Joe Hackney like Sherman marching through Georgia but Tillis’ real problem isn’t out-voting Hackney it’s out-politikin’ Perdue.

GOP legislators tout their budget amendments

Republican legislators on Tuesday touted their authorship of four money-saving amendments inserted in the state budget by the House last week, while simultaneously criticizing the Democratic majority for not incorporating more of their ideas.

The bills eliminated end-of-grade tests for students in four high school subjects, eliminated in-state tuition rates for recipients of the Morehead and Park scholarships awarded to students from out-of-state, the elimination of "golden parachutes" awarded to state employees who leave their jobs and the elimination of a provision that would have barred lottery money from being distributed to charter schools.

Meanwhile, the Republicans criticized the rejection of an amendment that sought to provide a $2,500 state tax credit to parents who homeschool their children or enroll them in private school. The measure, which Republicans said would save $51 million for state and local governments that don't have to pay to educate these children in public schools, was defeated 51 to 65.

"They just didn't vote for our alternatives," House minority leader Paul "Skip" Stam, a Republican from Apex, said of the Democrats. "But if they did, it would save taxpayers money."

Republicans have succeeded in recent years at inserting similar amendments on the House floor, only to have the provisions stripped by Democratic leaders negotiating the final budget with the Senate.

Republicans: Spend less, tax less

In their first media conference of the new legislative session, Republicans blamed Democrats for the ongoing economic crisis and said out-of-control state spending and too-high taxes are hampering the ability of private enterprise to create jobs.

"If you have excessive state spending, that requires excessive taxation," said House Minority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam, a Wake County Republican.

The Republicans proposed freezing state spending at the amount spent in the current budget year, at about $20 billion. They also criticized proposed tax incentives for small business proposed by the Democrats as too small to make a difference and said larger tax relief is needed to stimulate the economy.

But when pressed to detail precisely how the Republicans would propose to spend less than the opposition while simultaneously cutting taxes, Stam struggled to provide specifics about how his side would balance the budget.

Stam said the GOP legislators would propose specific spending reductions after they have an opportunity to see the budget proposed by the state Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.

"I feel certain we will provide specific cuts in the future," Stam said.

Asked if they agreed with Democrats that preventing further teacher layoffs is a top budgetary priority, the Republicans clarified they were in favor of protecting students.

"Protecting teachers is not the same as protecting education," said Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, who represents a district in Guilford and Rockingham counties.

Berger then poked fun at those who predicted dire consequences from last year's spending cuts to K-12 education and state-supported colleges.

"The last time I looked, when I rode by elementary schools, they were open, there were students there, there were teachers there," Berger said. "When I rode by the universities, the universities were open, there were students there, there were professors there, there were plenty of administrators there."

Not done yet

State Auditor Les Merritt stressed that a report on voting rolls is still preliminary.

During a meeting with a Senate committee, he said that early findings of invalid driver's licenses and dead voters may have innocent explanations when the report is finished.

"We'll eventually get to a correct, final report," Merritt said, "and that final report, it could very well say there isn't anything here, that everything's fine, we're doing a super job." (Char-O)

He also repeatedly denied that his request to delay a voter-registration bill was motivated by partisan politics. Some Democrats on the committee were not reassured, noting that his spokesman is the former political director for the state Republican Party. (W-SJ)

The bill now heads back to the Senate floor for a vote. Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger was one of the only committee members to vote against it.

"I don't think anyone could say the auditor's questions are illegitimate," he said. (GN-R

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