Legislators paint grim picture

Expounding the state of the nation’s crippled economy to a room full of the area’s top employers and revenue generators is no picnic. But that’s what state Sen. Martin Nesbitt and Reps. Susan Fisher, Bruce Goforth, Jane Whilden and Ray Rapp did at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative luncheon on Feb. 20.

“We are in terrible times—I don’t know how to sugarcoat it,” said Nesbitt, opening the door to similarly dire messages from the other elected representatives.

The $20-a-head event, held at The Crest Center and Pavilion in West Asheville, gives WNC’s representatives in Raleigh a chance to spell out their agendas for the upcoming legislative session to Chamber members and city and county leaders. And the resounding message this year was that the economy in general and the federal stimulus package in particular will have the floor.

A couple of speakers opened their comments with jokes, but even those were of the macabre “A doctor tells his patient he has 24 hours to live” variety. And though there was some positive word concerning health-care initiatives, the bulk of the news was uncertain and grim.

“We’ll probably be in this shape until 2011,” said Fisher, though she did try to put a positive polish on a few stimulus-funded initiatives, such as support for public education and developing green industry. “That will bring jobs specifically to North Carolina,” she noted.

Whilden also anticipated federal stimulus funding for green energy sources. “And that’s going to be a good thing for our area,” she predicted. Goforth, meanwhile, praised the introduction of legislation giving financial incentives to manufacturers of solar technology.

But the major work at hand will be poring over the stimulus bill and finding out exactly what—and how much—it means for Western North Carolina. And just because money is on the way for some things doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, stressed Rapp. The state still has a constitutional mandate to balance its books, and that may translate into more bad news.

“I’m here to tell you, there are going to be serious cuts. So anticipate that,” Rapp warned. “Gird yourselves, because the news is not getting any better.”

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