Fridays Follies

By: - August 12, 2005 10:31 am

This may come as a shock, but the budget approved this week contains funding for pet projects of individual legislators. The State Republican Party says the pork-barrel projects add up to at least $40 million and that somehow proves that the $17.2 billion budget is bloated and irresponsible.

There can be little disagreement that the budget is filled with funding for small projects that reward individual legislators. But several questions about all the partisan venom deserve answers. If the budget included none of the projects and therefore spent $40 million less, would the Republicans then support it? Or do the pork barrel projects simply give the critics of the budget rhetorically appealing ways to blast it? Maybe we shouldn’t fund a $400,000 teapot museum. But does that mean that spending is out of control?

Then there is the definition of park barrel. Generally projects in legislators’ districts fall into that broad category, money for a nonprofit, a road project, a new building at a local community college.   Republican Senator Harris Blake criticized the budget loudly in the press but says he supports a budget provision that provides $300,000 to his local community college.   Pork apparently is in the eye of the beholder.

Two more reminders this week about North Carolina’s shameful HIV/AIDS policy. A new report from a national organization of state officials who work on HIV/AIDS policy find that North Carolina is one of only states in the country that has a waiting list for medication as part of the AIDS Drug Assistance Plan (ADAP).

And the 2005 N.C. Women’s Health Report Card released this week found that the rate of HIV/AIDS infection rose 30 percent in the last three years. The rate almost quadrupled among Hispanic women and remained much higher among African-American women

The ADAP waiting list will grow dramatically at the end of September, when one-time emergency federal funding runs out.  That apparently does not matter much to the folks who put the budget together in the General Assembly.
The budget passed by the House and Senate this week spends only $1 million on ADAP, not nearly enough to keep people currently receiving medication on the program.  And remember, North Carolina has a waiting list despite having the most restrictive eligibility requirements in the nation.

The state denies the $13,000 a year drugs to anyone who earns more than $11,600 a year.
The budget did not address the eligibility level.

North Carolina’s deadly shame continues.

The last gasp effort to improve the public health in North Carolina by banning or reducing smoking in restaurants failed this week. Rep. Hugh Holliman introduced legislation early in the session to ban smoking in all restaurants, but fierce opposition from the restaurant association and the tobacco industry forced Holliman to dramatically weaken the proposal.

The new bill would have allowed smoking to continue but would have required restaurants to provide separate no smoking sections. Even that was too much for the regulation-phobic House members and bill was defeated in a close vote on the House floor. Holliman managed to resurrect the plan as part of another House bill rewriting the state’s certification laws for substance abuse counselors.

The House passed it over industry objections, but the Senate balked, unwilling to tackle controversial issues late in the session. Instead it will debate non-controversial items like the lottery, corporate tax cuts, etc.

Cities and states across the country have banned smoking in eating establishments, deciding that protecting the public health is more important than listening to industry lobbyists.   Those states have found that restaurant and bar business actually increased after the ban.

Not in North Carolina though. Folks who go out to dinner will be exposed to a deadly carcinogen for another at least another year.  Good thing we didn’t violate the legislative rules and take the bill up.

Several North Carolina teachers recently took part in an online discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spelling. One of them, Marshall Marvelli from Winston-Salem, asked Spelling how he is supposed to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Program with a class of 27 students that requires more time for class management than a class of 17-20 students?  

Spelling replied that   “maybe Marshall can prove up his point that smaller class size gets results in North Carolina, and maybe it doesn’t. But those are the sorts of things that state policymakers can look at.”  
Maybe Marshall can prove his point? Sounds like a classroom teacher might know that he is a better teacher with fewer students. Yet Spelling refused to admit it and so do those backwards thinking tanks that always oppose more money for class-size reduction.

Sometimes what you hear in the legislative halls reminds you that it is not just partisan debate, letters from constituents that gets legislation passed. Earlier this week, a lobbyist associated with the Easley Administration asked aloud in frustration, “doesn’t anyone need any roads paved?”

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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