Tuesday’s hero and the not so heroic

By: - March 1, 2005 9:43 pm

Tuesday at the General Assembly brought us both a hero speaking up for folks who have virtually no voice in the legislature and a less than heroic appearance by a group of lawmakers with a proposal that panders to the irresponsible rhetoric that makes a serious debate about the state budget next to impossible.

But first the good news. Rep. Thomas Wright from New Hanover County introduced three bills addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in North Carolina, a crisis that many lawmakers and Governor Mike Easley continue to ignore. (Read the Fitzsimon File about HIV/AIDS and the public investment agenda for more background information)

Easley’s budget includes no new money for fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS or treating people who are currently infected. That’s not a surprise when you consider that Easley said during a debate in the campaign that there just wasn’t enough money to help people dying of AIDS afford the drugs they need to stay alive. Have to let that tax hike on the richest people in the state expire after all.

Not much talk about the AIDS crisis from other lawmakers either. Wright aims to change that. One of his bills would give the Department of Health and Human Services $3.3 million a year for the next two years for education and prevention programs. Another would provide $6.5 million a year for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program and would increase North Carolina’s eligibility for the program to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, still less than the national average and less than our neighboring states.

Current state law denies lifesaving drugs that cost $13,000 a year to people who make more than $11, 962. Wright’s bill would make the cutoff $19,144 a year. Finally, he also introduced a bill that would allow three counties to establish clean needle exchange programs to prevent the spread of HIV among drug users and their partners.

Good for Thomas Wright and let’s hope his fellow lawmakers listen to him. Current HIV/AIDS drugs work to keep people alive, prevention programs work to keep people from getting infected and the evidence is clear that needle exchange programs play a vital in stopping the spread of the disease. And Governor Easley is wrong. These proposals will not cost much money and will save thousands of lives and millions dollars.

Now the bad news. More than 50 of Wright’s colleagues in the House signed on to the misnamed Taxpayer’s Protection Act that calls for a constitutional amendment that would put artificial limits on state spending.

Colorado passed such an amendment in 1992 and has returned more than $3 billion to taxpayers. Supporters of the plan in North Carolina like to talk about Colorado’s performance, but don’t generally mention that the state now has dramatic problems in a whole host of areas from education funding to health care to its criminal justice system.

For a detailed analysis of the plan, see the reports done by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh.

But all you need to know is that the anti-government crowd that support this absurd idea says that North Carolina would have spent more than $3 billion less in the last ten years on schools, human services, criminal justice and other areas. We would be battling Colorado for the state sinking the fastest in virtually every quality of life indicator.

Taxpayers are not protected by a plan that ravages the human and physical infrastructure of a state, they are hurt by it and the North Carolina lawmakers who signed this bill ought to know better.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066