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Low hopes 

Chris Fitzsimon at N.C. Policy Watch was up Monday night analyzing the back-room budget bill worked out by legislative leaders. Here's his initial report:

It will take several days to decipher much of the $17.2-billion, 364-page budget bill that state lawmakers are expected to vote on this week. Like most budgets, the spending itself is a mixed bag: worthwhile programs funded alongside questionable expenditures, small amounts of money for some programs that need millions, no real funding for services that literally mean life or death.

The budget moves health care coverage of uninsured children under 5 from Health Choice to Medicaid, a welcome change that makes the coverage less subject to budget shortfalls and legislative funding decisions. But the move comes at a price, capping enrollment in Health Choice for kids from 6 to 18. That coverage ought to be guaranteed, too.

The budget expands Gov. Mike Easley's More at Four program for at-risk kids; spends more money on community mental health programs; funds enrollment increases in public schools, community colleges and universities; and establishes a wage floor for the lowest paid state employees.

But this is a budget that maintains the status quo in most areas, even in the areas in which the state is struggling. It is not a budget that will transform North Carolina. The budget also continues to virtually ignore the state's affordable housing crisis, spending only $5 million on the Housing Trust Fund that needs 10 times that much, and denies lifesaving medication to people living with HIV/AIDS.

It doesn't cut taxes on corporations or the wealthy, though those efforts may not be finished this session, but it leaves the regressive sales tax increase in place and sets the stage for the predatory lottery to raise revenue from the poor.

The budget does not include the Senate proposal to reduce Medicaid services to the aged, blind and disabled, though Senate leaders vow to continue pursuing it. State Sen. Kay Hagan told reporters, "If we are going to continue educating our children, we are going to have to reduce these services."

That is not true, of course. The state can educate our children and take care of folks who need help, but that would require a commitment and the political courage to raise enough revenue to begin to solve North Carolina's problems, not simply patch a few here and there, like this budget does.

For Fitzsimon's continued analysis on the budget, visit www.ncpolicywatch.org.

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Oops: Last week we got our zeroes confused and said 13,000 people voted in the Indy's Best of the Triangle balloting this year. It was 1,300.

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