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For months now, as the U.S. invasion of Iraq loomed, raged and become an occupation, it has been difficult for most of us to focus our attention elsewhere. But not all of us. Quietly, a cabal of leaders in the General Assembly has been putting together their budgets, out of public view. The version produced first by the House of Representatives was no better than the governor's; it found no new revenue and cut Medicaid eligibility for thousands of pregnant women and people coming off welfare. The Senate is expected out with its budget any day now, and it's expected to be no better (the best they can come up with is a tax on candy and soda).

One group has tried to keep an eye on things for us. The Common Sense Foundation (www.common-sense.org) is a prime source for figuring out what's really happening in state government. But they're in some trouble, as Bob Geary writes in this week's CitiZen column on p. 7. In this, our annual Real Best of the Triangle issue, here's an analysis from Common Sense of the Real Worst Of what's happening:

"Legislators have not given a fair hearing to proposals to eliminate the bank tax loophole, a quirk in the N.C. tax code that allows banks to double-dip their interest deductions and avoid $50-$100 million per year in taxes. The banks can certainly afford to pay their taxes; last quarter Bank of America, Wachovia, and BB&T all reported record quarterly profits.

"The corporate income tax rate has not increased in a decade, but the only bills that have been filed that would affect the corporate tax rate are bills that would cut it even further. Plus no one will discuss ending the machinery tax loophole that will cost the state $178 million next year.

"Business lobbyists and legislators who cater to them have totally controlled the agenda throughout the budget process. They have steered the debate (what debate there has been) so that the only revenue discussion involved whether or not to allow previous tax increases to 'sunset,' or end on schedule.

"In this revenue-free climate, only the regressive cigarette excise tax has had a hearing. No other additional revenue proposals have seen the light of day.

"Legislators lament that there isn't more money 'available.' If they had any courage at all, they would find hundreds of millions in 'available' revenues that would stave off disastrous cuts to school classrooms, prenatal care, and health insurance for poor children.

"They can still find that courage and do the right thing. But time is quickly running out."

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Time's also running out before the Indy's Bar-B-Que, Bands & Best of the Triangle Party on Friday (May 2) from 7 p.m. to midnight at the Fearrington Barn. Winners get in free, but for $5 it's a great deal for anyone else who wants to eat and catch the Steep Canyon Rangers and Two Dollar Pistols.

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