Not pretty

By George Reed

The Senate last week unveiled and adopted its version of the state budget for 2005-2007. It was not a pretty sight.

The [Raleigh] News & Observer, in a strongly worded lead editorial titled “Budget Fiasco,” debated whether to call the budget “embarrassing,” “painfully ironic,” or “budget by blackmail,” before settling on “disgraceful.”

Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch called it “scandalous.”

Sorien Schmidt with the NC Justice Center ranked it “among the WORST” she has ever seen.

Briefly, the budget includes the state lottery, but in a convoluted manner, and many other substantive changes in law that should have been in separate bills, not folding into the budget.

It also reduces corporate income taxes; eliminates the top bracket on personal income taxes; makes less-than-adequate increases in tobacco taxes; eliminates Medicaid coverage for many people who are elderly, disabled, or blind; reduces other important programs for vulnerable people; and gives new protections to the pharmaceutical industry.

The procedure was disturbing, too, at least for those of us who still think representative democracy should include letting our elected representatives have reasonable input into legislative decisions.

Many senators got their first look at the budget bill, hundreds of pages of material, on Tuesday evening.

Passage on second reading came late Wednesday. Only amendments approved by the leadership were passed.

Lottery opponents, thought to be a majority of Senators, tried to have the lottery provisions removed from the budget.

But Senate leaders used a parliamentary maneuver to replace the anti-lottery amendment with one improving the state employees health plan, which passed.

The second-reading vote on the budget was 29-21, strictly along party lines.

The lieutenant governor, who is the presiding officer in the Senate, interpreted a call for the question on Wednesday afternoon as a call on the full bill, so no debate was allowed on the budget on Thursday morning, when it quickly passed third reading.

Senate leaders and all senators who support the lottery should be proud of the clever ways they have used the process to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, once again, they have shown us how rules of procedure can be used by those in power not only to quiet a large minority but, apparently, to stifle the will of a small majority.

Last week was a terribly discouraging one for those of us working for progressive social change in North Carolina.

The budget bill passed in the Senate because all of the state’s progressive senators voted for it.

They are not the sort you expect to see voting for cuts in taxes on those who can most afford to pay, for cuts in Medicaid services, for protections for the pharmaceutical companies, for cuts to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, for the lottery, and for all the rest of this bad budget.

No, it was not a pretty sight.

George Reed is executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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