This year's budget provides no new money for AIDS prevention and treatment. The state's lack of attention to the AIDS epidemic continues to be a largely ignored scandal. The Hunt Administration and the General Assembly leadership are both to blame. This year, House leaders told Thomas Wright there was not enough money to take up his request for $2 million for AIDS prevention and treatment, even though the General Assembly left $122 million unspent.
Not only AIDS funding was ignored. The Senate leadership decided this session not to allow a pilot project for needle exchanges to stop the spread of AIDS among IV drug users and their partners. State Health Director Ron Levine testified that the state has a crisis with the spread of HIV and the needle exchange program could keep people from becoming infected.
Studies show that needle exchange programs decrease the number of AIDS cases, increase the number of drug users entering treatment, and reduce the number of times law enforcement personnel are stuck with dirty needles as they make arrests.
The bill to authorize the pilot project actually passed a Senate committee but never came to the Senate floor for a vote. The Senate leadership decided that the issue could be used against them in the next election and the bill was buried even though several Senate leaders admitted the bill would save lives.
Money for mass transit
One of the issues on which progressives can claim victory this year is mass transit. The budget does include more money for mass transit as proposed by the Governor, though it is still a fraction of the money spent every year on highway construction.
Even more exciting to many mass transit advocates and environmentalists was the bill that provided additional funding for mass transit options to the state's urban areas. The legislation would allow voters in Mecklenburg County to decide if they want to raise the local sales tax by half a penny, and would also allow Triangle and Triad regions to impose a five percent tax on car rentals. The bill also gives counties with public transportation the ability to raise car registration fees by $5.
The proposal was strongly supported by a broad coalition of environmentalists, public transportation advocates, and the Hunt Administration. The plan does provide the potential for funding new mass transit projects, including light rail, and that is a new direction for the state's large cities, but the funding sources are revealing. It only gives voters in Mecklenburg County one choice for money to pay for mass transit needs -- a regressive sales tax.
As Durham Representative Paul Luebke pointed out during the debate, forcing the poor to pay disproportionately for mass transit is unfair and is the result of collusion among the highway construction industry and developers. The General Assemble House actually set new tax policy in the mass transit bill, and made taxes regressive in the process.
The state spends more than $2 billion a year on highway construction. Mecklenburg County will raise $40 million a year if the referendum on the sales tax increase passes. There is no reason the money for Mecklenburg's mass transit needs cannot come out the highway money except, of course, the powerful highway lobby and Department of Transportation will not allow it.
The only choice Mecklenburg County voters will have will be to vote "yes" or "no" on the sales tax hike. The business community and the Hunt Administration wouldn't allow other revenue sources to be part of the plan. They defined the narrow scope of the debate.
Business takes over the schools
The trend of a few people running North Carolina continued this week as Gov. Hunt appointed Phil Kirk to the State Board of Education and endorsed his subsequent election as board chairman.
Kirk is the head of North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, a trade group that lobbies in the General Assembly. He is the former chief of staff for Republican Governor Jim Martin and a former aide to a Republican Congressman. Kirk was a teacher before he entered the political world, but he has been associated with conservative political causes most of his adult life. He will now lead our Board of Education.
Kirk was late in getting on board Gov. Hunt's plan to raise teacher pay to the national average writing in the Charlotte Observer that we shouldn't raise teachers salaries to the national average. He later endorsed the plan after it changed teacher tenure policy and was reworked to give more money to high performing teachers.
Kirk lobbies in the General Assembly for tax breaks for business that cost the state hundreds of million of dollars that could be used to improve our schools or help the state's poor children. His job conflicts with the best interests of North Carolina's children. Kirk opposed universal health care even though more than 100,000 children in the state have no health care insurance and often come to school sick or undernourished. Kirk and his organization oppose increasing spending on programs that address poverty in North Carolina even though one in four children lives in poverty and often comes to school tired or hungry and not able to learn.
Hunt's choice of Kirk to lead the state Board is just the latest example of how a small select circle of people make most of the major policy in the state. The corporate world will now be deciding our priorities for our public schools -- after the Chairman of the State Board makes sure business get their tax cuts and loopholes at the expense of helping the poor in the state get their children ready to learn.
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