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Progressive state senators hold their tongues and support a terrible budget.

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Progressive senators swallow their tongues and support a "terrible" budget

"Like schoolyard bullies, the Senate budget writers chose to pick on those least able to defend themselves: the poor and disabled." So says Beth Melcher, government relations director for the state chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"The Senate budget is a scandal," says Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the Common Sense Foundation, "written in secret, manipulated by the powerful and devastating to the powerless. ... [It] declares war on the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled."

Fitzsimon watched from the gallery last week with disbelief as the $14.7 billion budget came to the Senate floor. Every single Democrat--35 of them, as against the 15 Republicans--voted for it. Conservative Democrats, moderate Democrats, progressive Democrats, all in bloc, all yes votes.

He waited, together with the lobbyists for other progressive groups in town, to see what Sen. Eric Reeves, a Raleigh Democrat, would do. Reeves, who is trying to gather support for a U.S. Senate bid next year, had been quoted in the morning papers as saying he'd vote for the budget if $100 million was added for critical social service programs by means of an increase in alcohol taxes. There was no such tax increase offered, but Reeves--without comment--voted yes.

"We just shook our heads," Fitzsimon said.

Then there was Sen. Brad Miller, the other Raleigh Democrat. Miller is vying to be the party's candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the new, yet-to-be-drawn 13th N.C. congressional district. Miller, in fact, is the Senate chairman of the legislative committee drawing up the new congressional district map, making his aspirations a good deal more than mere desire. Perhaps he would step to the microphone and state his views? He did not, and he also voted yes.

These two progressive Democrats stuck to the party line not only in the face of the budget's devastating cuts to social services, but also its face-slap to state employees, many of whom live in their Wake County district. The Senate budget gave them $625 raises (less than 2 percent on average), jacked up their health-insurance premiums and put almost nothing into their pension fund.

The Senate budget also cut more than 1,000 state jobs, according to the N.C. Center for Justice and Community Development, including 300 in the Department of Health and Human Services. And it calls for closing Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, a mental-health facility, by July 2003, as well as the Whitaker School, a program for disturbed adolescents in Butner. Some 1,200 people work at Dix, another 100 at Whitaker.

As Melcher points out, if Dix closes, there's really nowhere to put the 400 severely ill patients it houses on the average day. Waiting lists for the limited number of smaller, community-based mental health facilities, programs for the developmentally disabled and persons with substance-abuse problems already number more than 10,000. That's why the homeless shelters are full to bursting in Raleigh and elsewhere.

The budget creates a "fund" to pay for more local programs, but with no money in it, it's an empty promise so far.

And on the revenue side, the Senate budget does little to address the bleeding caused by the $1.4 billion a year in tax cuts enacted over the last decade. "Loopholes" were closed to produce an additional $190 million, but businesses--the main beneficiaries of the tax cuts--were largely spared, with most of the new money coming from taxes on TV and long-distance telephone calls.

In short, in a very tight budget year, business tax cuts were preserved by slashing social services for the neediest people.

"So why would you vote for a budget like that?" Reeves says, anticipating the question. His answer: It could have been worse. And, he says, there will be several chances to make it better--if not good--over the next month as the budget moves through the state House of Representatives and the finance committees consider supplemental tax measures.

Reeves says, "to put it bluntly, this was one of the most difficult weeks I've ever had." But finally, he decided not to break with the Senate leadership and to work within the caucus--behind closed doors--for changes. He got some, he says, including postponing the scheduled Dix closing from the original date of July 2002.

"We did make it a little better," Miller agrees. "But we didn't make it good. There's no making it good without new revenues." He will support a tax increase to avert the social services cuts, he said.

"You have to realize," says Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Chapel Hill Democrat and probably the most progressive member of the Senate, "that it's not a democracy over here."

Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, backed by close lieutenants like Sen. Tony Rand, D-Fayetteville, insist on "what they call team players," Kinnaird says. That means whatever the Democratic caucus decides in private, everybody is for in public. "If you want any of your own bills passed in the future, you have to go along," she says, "because they will punish you, I can tell you that."

Kinnaird, outspoken and independent in the past, has paid the price, she says. She is not a Senate insider. Her fellow Chapel Hill Democrat, Sen. Howard Lee, is. In fact, Lee was one of a trio of senators who, with Basnight and Rand, put the budget together.

Kinnaird says that she, Reeves, Miller, Sens. Wib Gulley and Jeanne Lucas, the two Durham Democrats, and a handful of other progressive members discussed long and hard whether they could accomplish more by splitting openly with Basnight and speaking out.

"I got a letter from Adam Stein [the civil rights lawyer] saying that no good Chapel Hill Democrat could ever support this budget," she says. "Well, it is a terrible budget, but we all felt that we did have some influence on it, and that if we stick together as a group, we can continue to have influence in the future."

The Triangle caucus is pushing a tax reform plan sponsored by Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Charlotte, that if enacted in the current session could stem the bleeding. Clodfelter's bill would: (1) withhold about $300 million in state aid to counties; (2) take over the counties' share of Medicaid costs; and (3) give the counties a menu of allowable local taxes, including a local sales tax, impact fees on real-estate development, and taxes on hotel rooms and meals. Currently, counties need special legislation to enact any of these, and that is usually hard to come by.

Why is this a progressive idea? Because, the progressives say, poor rural counties have the highest, and fastest-growing, Medicaid costs, while urban counties--Wake--need the flexibility to tie taxes to the rate of development.

Reeves is also hopeful that, once the House comes face to face with the grim realities of the budget, it will support the idea--floated by Basnight at the behest of the progressives--of a tax hike on booze to pay for mental health and substance-abuse programs.

Is working within the system the best approach for progressive Democrats? We'll know in a month. EndBlock

  • Progressive state senators hold their tongues and support a terrible budget.

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