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The GOP's insane clown posse

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This Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart's event in Washington, D.C., "for the people who think shouting is annoying [and] the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard" coincides with the end of early voting in North Carolina and falls just three days before Election Day.

It may come too late, in other words, for a 2010 campaign dominated by lunatic charges about death panels, headless bodies in the desert and other specters too horrible to contemplate should Democrats be elected.

On the other hand, if you agree with Sarah Palin that evaluating medical procedures for their cost-effectiveness amounts to death panels, or you think that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer should've stuck to her guns, so to speak, about the bloodthirsty immigrants who haven't beheaded anyone on this side of the U.S. border—but who's to say they won't?—then Stephen Colbert's competing March to Keep Fear Alive event is the Washington place for you this weekend.

Late or not, some chance for sanity is better than none at all.

A Raleigh to Restore Sanity event is also on tap Saturday, sponsored by the progressive group N.C. Policy Watch. It's for "reasonably sane and hopeful people who have no desire to take North Carolina back to the 19th century or compare other people to Hitler, at least publicly," the group says. It's at the Irish pub Tir na nOg, 218 S. Blount St., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The D.C. events will be shown on television starting at noon.

In North Carolina, the state Republican Party raised the lunatic specter of death-row inmates moving to a split-level in your neighborhood because of the 2009 Racial Justice Act. The GOP mailed fliers [download PDF] into targeted districts with mug shots of convicted murderers and the message that under the RJA, these criminals, and others like them, could be paroled. The headline: "Meet Your New Neighbors."

Like Brewer's tales of beheaded victims, the Republican account was completely untrue. "It's just a widely distributed lie," House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, shouted Monday from the steps of the Democratic Party headquarters in Raleigh. "Where, Mr. Fetzer, is the retraction?" Hackney demanded again and again. "Because it's a lie."

Plainly, the RJA does not permit convicted death-row inmates to be released from prison. It does permit them to remain in prison for the rest of their lives—avoiding execution—if they can demonstrate by statistical evidence that they were sentenced to death based on their race. The death penalty and life in prison with no chance of parole are the only outcomes sanctioned by the law.

State Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer told the Winston-Salem Journal that he may issue a retraction, but only if he's persuaded that the flier is inaccurate. "I will look into it," Fetzer said.

Fetzer, though, was compelled to issue an apology to House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, one of the Democrats targeted by the GOP's fictional mailing. Fetzer said he didn't know that Holliman's 16-year-old daughter was raped and murdered in 1985, or that Holliman—who supports capital punishment—witnessed the execution of her murderer.

Thus, calling Holliman a "criminal coddler," as the Republican mailings to his district did, crossed the line from typical political lying to, in Jon Stewart's words, "drawing a Hitler mustache on someone." The latter, the comedian added, is never appropriate unless the person actually is Hitler "or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles."

Fetzer, who entered politics at the side of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a master of racial bigotry, doubtless intended only to take a Willie Horton-style cheap shot at some Democrats who would be tied in knots trying to prove him wrong. Instead, he launched a vicious attack—and a false one—on a Democrat who immediately turned it back on him. "I know in politics the truth gets stretched," Holliman told the Journal. "This is politics at its worst."

The Fetzer fliers were the low point of the North Carolina campaign. But other political moves, if not so bogus, also beg for some restoration of sanity because they involve important issues about which the public was misled.

From the federal to local elections:

"We're already $14 trillion in debt," the old guy in the Richard Burr commercial says. "And look what that got us: high unemployment, a bad economy," the young lady answers.

Not really. The true national debt is $9 trillion, and what it got us was the Louisiana Purchase, all of California, World War I, World War II—in short, $9 trillion is what it cost to create a country with an annual income (gross domestic product) of $14.6 trillion. Is that level of debt affordable? It's worth debating, but most people would reckon that if their annual income was $146,000 and the mortgage on their home was $90,000, they'd be in excellent financial shape.

Those who say the national debt is $14 trillion are including future obligations of the federal government (including Social Security) for which funds haven't been borrowed as yet. Even with these so-called intra-governmental holdings added, however, the ratio of debt to GDP remains below the historic peak of 121 percent reached in 1946, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the greatest period of prosperity in U.S. history.

"Race to the Bottom" is the title of a chilling report from the authoritative Public School Forum of North Carolina. In total, the state spends about $12.7 billion a year on K–12 education for some 1.5 million students in public schools. This figure includes $7.9 billion in state spending, to which federal and local funds are added.

Thus, in 2008–2009, our state ranks 42nd of 50 in school spending per student, according to the latest available data compiled by the forum. We spend $8,743 per student, about half what is spent by first-place Rhode Island and $543 less than South Carolina, which ranks 34th.

As low as our standing is now, however, the forum says we may be headed even lower, given the $3 billion-plus budget gap facing the next General Assembly. "With $738 million of federal stimulus money for schools scheduled to end this year, and with another $1.3 billion of temporary [state] taxes also scheduled to end, there is a distinct possibility that North Carolina could be at, or near, 50th place" when the 2011 General Assembly is finished, it says.

Public sanity would be served by some serious discussion of this issue in the campaign, but no such luck.

The Republican Party's legislative agenda—its plan for the first 100 days if it wins control of the General Assembly—promises to balance the state budget without raising tax rates. That would seem to call for deep cuts in school aid, though the GOP also pledges to "fund education in the classroom."

The Democratic Party has no such published agenda, so its plans are equally unknown.

However, former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, does not doubt the difference between the two parties on education. "Our side" puts money into the schools, Hunt said Monday. The Republicans don't—and won't.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." So said Tom Oxholm, a former Republican (now unaffiliated) who served on the Wake County school board from 2000–2004, at a conference hosted by the Great Schools in Wake coalition Oct. 16. Oxholm is a CPA who applied his sharp pencil to Wake school issues then and now. Wake's schools rank 92nd of 115 districts in North Carolina on per-student funding, he said. Only "demagogues" (he meant the current school board majority) could think they know how to spend less and get better results, especially if they intend to create the kind of high-poverty schools that Charlotte-Mecklenburg did. That move pushed Charlotte-Mecklenberg's property tax rate up to the current 83.9 cents (per $100 assessed value) compared to Wake's tax rate of 53.4 cents.

Oxholm thinks the school system is in deep trouble. "The slippery slope has started in Wake County, and we need to find a way to stop it," he said.

As Wake County voters go to the polls to choose between Democratic candidates who agree with Oxholm and Republican candidates who support the GOP-controlled school board, sanity would suggest focusing on the school issue.

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