If you would have asked state legislators whether they would have preferred to hear the news from today’s budget briefing or have had a cavity filled, some may have saddled up to the dentist’s chair.

Preliminary estimates place the state budget shortfall for fiscal year 2009-2010 at $2.1 billion, possibly more. This hardship comes on the heels of this year’s $2 billion deficit.

Assuming there is no revenue growthlikely a safe assumptionthe ’09-’10 starting budget point is $18.8 billion. That sounds like a good chunk of change until you consider the recurring portion of the budgebasic yearly expensesis $20.9 billion.

“This is the hole we start with,” said Evan Rodewald, a legislative fiscal analyst on the budget development team. He acknowledged while there is no budget or revenue estimate for ’09-’10, “we have to start somewhere.”

The deficit includes a $400 million shortfall in the state health plan, assuming current benefit levels. And as more people lose their jobs and, consequently, their health insurance, Medicaid funding will continue to be tappedand will need extra cash.

“We don’t know what the problems are going to be,” Rodewald said. “While we have people needing more state assistance, the state has fewer resources to make assistance available.”

Each 1 percent increase in the Medicaid budget is equivalent to $30 million. Rodewald said a 5 percent increase in funding demand is to be expected and that “10 percent is not completely absurd.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the federal economic stimulus package, which, among other financial injections, would appropriate $2.2 billion to North Carolina for Medicaid for 27 months.

Medicaid funding is the most reliable part of the stimulus package, Rodewald said.

Another $717 million in federal funds would come to N.C. for “fiscal stabilization,” money geared toward education and public safety. It’s less clear how this money can be used, Rodewald said, “but we think that these funds could be used to replace state funds.”

The state has a savings reserve worth $787 million over the next two years. However, part of that money will likely be siphoned to handle this year’s shortfall, including funding for the state health plan.

Barry Boardman, a legislative fiscal analyst with expertise in taxation, told legislators that a year ago, the conventional wisdom was “we’d be coming out of an economic downturn. We thought we wouldn’t see recession-like conditions in North Carolina. Boy, were we wrong.”