Gov. Bev Perdue jumped into the budget talks at the General Assembly today in a big way, calling for enough new revenues to protect school aid, keep class sizes at current levels and avoid laying off teachers and teacher assistants. Perdue “walked over” to the General Assembly early this morning, she said, to meet with the finance and appropriations chairs of the House and Senate. A few hours later, she was at the Capitol for the first of a statewide series of rallies/photo-ops with teachers. (Another was slated for Greensboro this afternoon.) Perdue was joined by Scott Ralls, head of the N.C. Community College system, and said she’d invited UNC President Erskine Bowles as well, though Bowles was otherwise committed. But Perdue focused all her fire on the importance of public schools as the “seed corn” for future economic growth in the state.

(Update: Together NC, a coalition of progressive groups, chooses to like Perdue said about education and hear in it a commitment to protect “education and services to the state’s most vulnerable residents. The coalition’s statement is below the fold.)

In a brief Q&A with reporters afterward, Perdue declined to be exact about how much new money she wants or how to raise it. “I have been very careful not to mandate a specific revenue source,” she said. The budget adopted by the House last week would add $784 million in new revenues, mainly from a 1/4-cent sales tax increase and income-tax surcharges on those making $200,000 a year and up. According to one report, Perdue told the legislative leaders they should be looking for about twice that much.

Perdue said the state is facing a revenue shortfall of $4.7 billion for the fiscal year that begins in two weeks. Federal stimulus funds are expected to fill about one-third of that gap, with the balance to come from higher taxes and program cuts. The House budget, and an earlier one passed by the Senate, made steep cuts in education, social services and corrections budgets. Answering a question about the other cuts, Perdue said she’s leaving it to the General Assembly to decide how to deal with mental health and other programs. “Today is about the public schools,” she said. “My priority, made perfectly clear today, the only thing I’m passionate about right now is about — you gotta protect the children, and you have to protect education. And I believe, as the General Assembly does that, they will take care of the other big holes that they’ve seen and talked about.”

From Together NC:

Coalition Praises Gov. Perdue’s Call to Protect Public Investments
Schools, families and communities must be the priorities as legislators craft a budget

(RALEIGH) — A coalition of more than 100 organizations is praising Gov. Beverly Perdue’s call to the NC General Assembly to raise $1.5 billion in revenue to avoid crippling budget cuts.

The coalition, Together NC, is calling for responsible tax increases and sensible cuts that will protect education and services for the state’s most vulnerable residents. “It takes vision to recognize that the cuts being proposed will have devastating long-term consequences for North Carolina’s families and economy,” said Rob Thompson, director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children and a Together NC member. “Thankfully, Governor Perdue is a strong leader who knows that above all, the future of the state’s children must be protected.”

“Preventing the proposed increase in class sizes will help to preserve the decades of investments North Carolina has made into its public school system,” said Angella Dunston, director of the NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project. “But children don’t just go to school; they live in families and communities. North Carolina must act to ensure that we continue to provide families with the services they need and keep our communities safe and healthy.”

Together NC represents more than a million North Carolinians and is made up of non-profit organizations, service providers, and professional organizations concerned about protecting the state’s vital public investments during this difficult budget year.

“The good news is our state legislators are on the right track,” explained Elaine Mejia, director of the NC Budget & Tax Center. “The budget proposals from the House and the Senate include wise reforms, and by pulling the best from both the General Assembly could raise adequate revenue in a responsible, fair way.”