No choice, really

Virtually all North Carolinians will feel the pain in a state budget that reflects, appropriately, shared hard times.

August 7, 2009 

If you're getting married in North Carolina, this probably won't matter to you, but your state marriage license fee is going up 10 bucks, from $50 to $60, under the new state budget. Unfortunately for most North Carolinians, there's little bliss to soften the impact of a state budget that won, at long last, approval in the General Assembly. That said, there were few alternatives to a package of tax increases and government cutbacks.

Buying yourself something on the Internet? You'll pay a sales tax. Doing some digital downloading, are you? Same deal. For that matter, if you buy anything, you're looking at an increase of one cent on the dollar. Smokers and those who like the hops and the grape will take a hit. (That's 10 cents a pack on cigarettes, a nickel per six-pack, four cents on a bottle of wine and 5 percent on the hard stuff.)

Those who can't outrun the long arm of the law will be feeling an additional pinch. A court-appointed lawyer will cost those who are convicted $50, and those who are convicted when SBI lab tests are involved are going to pay $600. Defendants who don't show in court will pay $200. Both are twice the current fees.

If couples have taxable incomes of roughly $250,000 or more they will pay a 3 percent surcharge on taxes they owe, and those between $100,000 and $250,000 will look at a 2 percent surcharge.

All told, additional revenues of nearly $1 billion are anticipated to help the state close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Democratic state Sen. Tony Rand, the majority leader who's balanced more than a few state budgets in his time, pretty much had it right when he looked for the rainbow in all this: "Think about the things we would have had to do if we did not have the additional revenue." In other words, these tax measures were virtually a no-choice situation, contrary to what Republicans on Jones Street have been saying in criticism -- not that they offered realistic plans to escape the budget crunch.

As it stands, there are some distressing cuts among many hard-hitting reductions across departments. Public school systems will have to find savings, with larger classes and fewer teachers hired.

Perhaps most disturbing: the elimination of 350 jobs that fall under services for people with developmental disabilities, substance abuse services and general mental health care. This is so troubling because the state's mental health system was just about ruined by so-called reform. A News & Observer series last year showed large sums wasted, services that weren't getting delivered, and hazardous, even deadly, conditions for some patients. Legislators are trying to mitigate the cuts by redeploying some people and programs, but advocates for the mentally ill are alarmed by the budget cuts, and they should be.

Yes, times are what they are. But the economy is showing some signs of recovery, and North Carolinians must hope that when that recovery is in full swing, the General Assembly will call more hands on deck to restore a variety of services that help not just individuals but society as a whole.

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