She's the last line of defense

May 9, 2011 

— The state House of Representatives has passed a budget designed to "right-size government." The Senate will now, reportedly, only "tweak" the proposal - accepting its broad outlines and structure. The result will be unlike anything we've seen in more than three decades. Havoc nears.

Gigantic cuts, nearing $2 billion, are in store for education and social services. Thousands and thousands of job cuts in public schools, community colleges and universities. Deep rescissions, or worse, for Smart Start and More at Four. Millions removed from need-based financial aid. Astonishing instructional cutbacks.

Massive reductions for over a million Medicaid and mental health care recipients. The back of the hand for unemployment insurance. Elimination of essential personnel in an already strapped judicial system. Total estimated job losses are said to exceed 26,000. Our teetering economic recovery will receive a daunting body blow.

The governor, though, is testy. Having warmed to the veto pen, she apparently stands ready for battle. Her rejection of a bill eliminating federal financial aid at many community colleges was instructive. "You want to make it needlessly harder and more expensive for North Carolinians to get an education?" she seemed to say. "Not on my watch." (My words, not hers.)

Facing a blithely ideological legislature, Beverly Perdue seems to have found her sea legs. At long last, she may even be enjoying herself. She carries anew the sweet harmony of politics and conviction. If thousands of Obamanistas sidled up to her only uncomfortably in 2008, they may now embrace her like their futures depended on it. No doubt they do. If the hard-pressed of North Carolina are to have a friend and patron in exigency, Perdue's the only game in town.

Because when so many of us watch what's happening in the legislature, we don't get it. The theory seems to be: Thankfully, the economy is modestly on the rise, Wall Street is restored, the banks are again comfortable, corporate profits are solid, but now folks are going to have to pay the piper. We've got to face reality. Sure, we've seen a steep rise in poverty and unemployment. And, yes, more Tar Heels have lost their health care coverage than in almost any other state. More of us are actually hungry than nearly anywhere in the country. And, yes, losses of employment, wealth and income have fallen far more harshly on people of color than the rest. But it's time to end the gravy train.

Enough of school teachers draining our resources. Enough of the luxuriant life on unemployment insurance. We've had plenty of paying for mental health services; even if the federal government's after us.

We've led the way in early childhood development. But these kids chose to be born at the wrong time. Too bad their educational careers were launched at a time when we decided we wouldn't invest in our children. We know that our parents invested in us, but things change. We're not as responsible as they were. We're more drawn to tax cuts. You, and your ilk, have been breaking the bank. Now it's our turn.

But most North Carolinians don't think that's what happened the last three years. They think the swells drove us over a cliff in a frenzy of greed and fraud. It wasn't that waitresses and poultry workers got lazy and decided to coast. It wasn't that families no longer stretched, and saved, to make it possible for their kids to go to college. It wasn't that folks on Medicaid decided they'd enjoy being sick for a while. It wasn't that almost 20 percent of us, under- or unemployed, decided work wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

Average North Carolinians are scrambling to emerge from one of the toughest stages in our history. They don't think it makes sense to throw thousands more out of work in order to drop a penny of sales tax. They can't imagine that anyone would raise taxes on the poorest of those who are working, through slashing the earned income tax credit, in order to cut the corporate income tax rate. They can't believe anyone would diminish North Carolina's historic commitment to education in order to make it easier for multi-state businesses to avoid paying into our coffers. And they certainly can't believe we would think so little of our fellows, and ourselves, that we would say to "the least of these" - too bad, fend for yourselves.

I'm guessing that the governor, and a lot of the rest of us, won't put up with it.

Gene Nichol is a professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the university's Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

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