Whose side is the state Senate on? Not ours. | Bob Burtman | Indy Week

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Whose side is the state Senate on? Not ours.

The tightly scripted bit of legislative theater that will eventually produce a state budget has been most noteworthy to date for its utter lack of improvisation. Senate budget writers were told by the leadership cabal what to fund and what to cut. Dissenting views were procedurally squelched even before they were voiced. Safety first, as in make sure that no leader is put at risk in future elections, has been the order of the day. Senators had one day to review and pass a 277-page, $17-billion bill that would have taken weeks to scrutinize beyond the broad outlines. Amendments? Forget it. Borrowing a tactic from electric companies and other utilities, which ask for absurd rate increases and then accept a "compromise" hike that is actually what they wanted in the first place, Senate budget committees floated trial balloons with outrageous proposed cuts, only to scale them back to levels that seem palatable by comparison.

The unkindest cuts that remain have been widely reported but are worth rehashing: Medicaid coverage would be slashed as part of $167 million in human-services cuts, reducing or eliminating health services for 65,000 residents, many of them elderly or disabled. Funding for drug and family courts as well as intervention and alternative sentencing programs would be heavily cropped, continuing a trend toward shrinking alternatives to incarceration that started in 2001.

The reductions have nothing to do with the relative needs of the citizenry, nor are they based on any cost-benefit analyses or even a simple evaluation of whether the programs are working. The drug courts provide an excellent illustration: About 65 percent of prison inmates have substance abuse problems. Of the people that are sentenced in the drug courts, three quarters complete the program successfully. It costs $4,000 for the average drug court case, as opposed to $25,000 annually to incarcerate an offender. So to conclude that the drug courts save taxpayers a lot of money is not just wishful liberal thinking, as the lock-'em-up crowd claims. But that didn't spare them from the knife.

As for mental health and home health care programs that have been similarly proven to save the state money in the long term, one can only imagine the Senate budgeteers with their hands over their ears, shouting "I can't hear you! I can't hear you!"

The wishful thinking here is that a real analysis of the success or failure of a given program might enter into the budget deliberations. Were that the case, the Senate would not have written in more money to keep afloat the Global TransPark, a ship that sank a long time ago. Moreover, the TransPark appropriation moved into the more permanent continuation budget, meaning that the legislature will have to eliminate it from future budgets instead of adding it every year. "It'll be there as long as any of us are on this earth," lamented Forsyth Republican Ham Horton, who was powerless to stop it.

The decision to eliminate the tax bracket for the state's wealthiest residents is similarly grounded in vapor. Senate president Marc Basnight, who along with a few committee chairs controls the fate of the budget proposal, claims that the bracket deters wealthy executives from moving their companies and families to the state. With the great burden lifted, Basnight says in his best trickle-down rhetoric, companies will move to the state and create jobs and tax revenues that will help the hard-working folks who need it most.

Basnight offers no examples or statistics to back this notion, which is generally contradicted by corporate relocation professionals, nor does he factor in the many offsetting advantages that continue to draw immigrants of all classes to North Carolina by the thousands. Even if he could find an industrialist in Mississippi or South Carolina to support his argument, almost all the benefits from the break will accrue to those who live here already (and who do not seem to be fleeing in droves).

The change will cost $57 million this coming fiscal year and $91 million the next, hard currency that could accomplish dozens of far worthier objectives--like funding the federally mandated program to evaluate the 7,000 abused and neglected preschool children currently on a waiting list to see if they have developmental problems and begin the treatment process. But Basnight, Senate majority leader Tony Rand and the other budget dictators decided that, even facing a billion-dollar shortfall, it would be best to give away another $57 million this year to those who need it least.

It's worth noting that at least some of the beneficiaries of the change voted for it; Rand for one is no doubt salivating at the prospect of adding additional wild-animal skins to his bathroom walls and ceiling. It would have been a welcome shock if at least a few senators had exercised their consciences and recused themselves on the grounds that they would profit directly. But the few grand that those noble citizen-legislators will save each year is not sufficient to ascribe greed as more than a secondary motive for the decision.

The primary impetus for that and other provisions that reduce revenues in the Senate budget comes from a different group of raptors that roams the hallways of the legislative building. At the bidding of the corporate lobbyists, the senators agreed to cut the corporate tax rate, restock the state corporate incentives fund and otherwise kowtow to the suits who pay for their campaigns, fancy dinners, golf junkets and exotic vacations. The corporate tax cut, a key objective of the powerful lobbying group N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry and its special-interest orbit, will cost the state about $70 million in annual revenues--enough to cover most of the poor and elderly who will be hung out to dry by an underfunded Medicaid program.

Doing the lobbyists' bidding is also why the Senate added the seemingly inexplicable budget provisions that will enhance the bottom lines of pharmaceutical companies. The provisions expand the list of drugs that are exempt from Medicaid's prior authorization program, which saves money by requiring patients to get approval before expensive, brand-name meds are prescribed instead of cheaper alternatives. Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom said she didn't know who had inserted the provisions, but that anything resulting in increased costs to the prescription drug program would further strain resources for the sick.

It'll be interesting to watch the legislators go into contortions as they deliberate the lobbying reform bill later this session, trying desperately to create enough loopholes to protect the status quo. Anyone betting that the final result will include the full disclosure of lobbying activities, however, will be sorely disappointed. And while disclosure requirements may open back-room wheeling and dealing to a few rays of daylight, they won't help most people gain access to the process.

The lack of access and meaningful debate once again ensured that the priorities of the few would become the mandate for the many. The usual suspects from the liberal side of the spectrum have weighed in with futile admonitions (none more persistently or eloquently than Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch), but the voices in the wilderness have come from all quarters. A group promoting medical malpractice lawsuit limits led by former Jesse Helms advisor Carter Wrenn published a statement ripping the Senate's intent to spend $23 million for a new state personnel and payroll technology system when the old one works just fine. A task force led by former Progress Energy CEO Sherwood Smith and other business executives reported that one in five North Carolinians lacks health insurance, and that the uninsured population increased at a rate twice the national average the last several years.

The most scathing public take came from Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon, whose recent op-ed in The News & Observer sarcastically thanked the senators for stuffing his pockets at the expense of the needy. "It is clear that our Senate leadership does not know where we are as a state, does not have a shared vision about where we should be in the future and has no coherent plan to move us forward," Goodmon wrote.

None of this has bothered the so-called leadership, who all cheerfully agree that the budget does exactly the opposite of what it seems to do. "There is structural integrity in this budget," foamed Rutherfordton Sen. Walter Dalton, who co-chairs an appropriations committee. Most importantly, he said, the budget invests in "providing services for those who need it most." "We continue to strengthen our work force," chirped Forsyth Sen. Linda Garrou, a budget co-chair. "We continue to improve opportunities for our children. And we continue to do things for folks ... who know we're going to be there in hard times."

Those "folks" Garrou invokes know just who they are, but they're not the folks on waiting lists for services they may never receive, or the uninsured, or those with a debilitating illness they can't afford to treat. For those folks, Garrou and her cronies offer cake.

In the end, the state House will moderate some of the cuts, the legislature will produce a reconciled bill, and the elected officials will revel in their generosity and concern for the downtrodden, following the script to the final curtain. Or, as Fitzsimon astutely observes, "They want to be able to tout the things that poll well."

Burtman can reached at bburtman@earthlink.net

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