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Legislature Begins 2011-2012 Session

The North Carolina legislature has begun a new session at a historic time in its history. Republicans now hold a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. But it's going to be a difficult year. Lawmakers face a potential 3-point-7 billion dollar budget deficit. Jessica Jones reports they say they're ready to meet that challenge.

The halls of the state legislature were buzzing with activity on the first day of the 2011-2012 session yesterday. Family members and constituents snapped pictures of lawmakers dressed in their finest suits. Lobbyists moved from one crowded office to the next, greeting legislators as they prepared to take their seats on the floors of the House and the Senate. In a ceremony in the Senate chambers, UNC-Chapel Hill's student body president, Hogan Medlin, sang the national anthem to mark the first session of the year. After that, it didn't take long before the group elected its new president pro tem- Senator Phil Berger of Rockingham County. Members applauded as Berger strode to the podium in his new position as one of the state's most powerful politicians.

"I am humbled and honored to stand before you today. This is a historic moment, for this body and for our state. But this is just a moment, history will judge us based on the substance of this session, not this moment."

Berger's predecessor was the former democratic Senator Marc Basnight, who ruled the legislature for eighteen years. Now that it's Berger's turn, the first task on the Republican to-do list is to eliminate the state's enormous budget deficit. Berger says it can be done with what he calls a different philosophy in state government.

"Just as working families and small businesses have to make difficult decisions and tighten their belts to make ends meet, we as a state will also have to tighten our belt to put our financial house in order. State government and state employees will have to do more with less as we work to rightsize state government. It's not going to be easy, but streamlining state government will pay dividends in the long run."

Berger says it should be possible to close the enormous potential budget shortfall by cutting programs rather than raising taxes. Berger says he'd also like to make sure to end so-called temporary sales, corporate and personal income tax surcharges pushed forward by Democrats two years ago during another difficult fiscal year.

"We had 31 members of our caucus in the Senate and 68 members of the Republican Caucus in the House who all ran on a platform of we will not extend those temporary taxes, so that is one of the things- we have said we're going to keep the promises to the people."
Governor Bev Perdue has said she might consider proposing to extend those taxes, if the only alternative is cutting funding for education. That puts her at odds in a Senate and House controlled by Republicans. The House elected Republican Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg as its speaker yesterday. He's well known for his opposition to taxes. But Democratic Representative Becky Carney- also of Mecklenburg- says she wasn't thinking as much about taxes on this historic day. She said she was happy for her Republican colleagues who have achieved their goal of being in the majority.

"Today I sort of felt like, this is their day and good for them, congratulations."

Still, Carney says everyone knows the potential budget shortfall is going to be extremely difficult to solve. She says it's going to demand cooperation more than anything else.

" I believe that we are more than ever called to join together and we can all talk bipartisanship all we want, because Democrats and Republican citizens in this state and Independents are going to be impacted. So that's the challenge."

Today, legislators are expected to announce who will fill the rosters of important committees. They say next week they'll start introducing bills.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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