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Editorial: Legislative challenges: Not for the faint-hearted

The recent passing of former Gov. Bob Scott should remind lawmakers convening in Raleigh this week of the painful decisions governing requires ó and the courage it takes to make those decisions.
Before Scott was governor from 1969 to 1973, North Carolina had no retail tax on cigarettes. Tobacco was king. But Scott believed North Carolina needed to add kindergarten to its public schools. He helped push through a package that levied a tax of 2 cents on the dollar on cigarettes and a penny on soft drinks to finance that initiative. “The way I put it then, if a person didn’t have anything better to do than ride around smoking and drinking, he ought to pay a little more tax,” Scott said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. Scott also backed a gasoline tax to improve the state’s roads.
Now state Sen. Marc Basnight has revived talk of raising taxes on alcohol and cigarettes ó so-called “sin taxes.” This time, there is no noble new initiative like public kindergarten. Instead, Basnight and others are scrambling to shore up the state budget, which is as much as $3 billion short for the current fiscal year. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco raise only about $453 million toward a $21.5 billion budget. Even if the legislature increases those taxes substantially, it will have to do much more to plug this gap.
The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research says the recession is not the only factor in North Carolina’s shortfall, though it’s a big one. Lawmakers set themselves up for trouble last year by using one-time monies to fund ongoing programs to the tune of $156 million, taking on $857 million in new debt, enacting tax cuts that will cost $39 million and failing to stabilize the state health plan, which needs about $300 million. Add to that the program expansions Gov. Beverly Perdue promised as a candidate and the ripple effect of federal budget problems, and the only thing worse than fixing this year’s budget is thinking about coming up with a workable budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Few would have predicted last summer that the global economy would fall as precipitously as it did in the fall, so there’s no need to tar and feather the budget writers who got the state into this position. They’ll suffer enough as they try to fix it. They’ll need help ó and courage.
Bob Scott left office after four years, but public kindergarten stayed and flourished. It was an important step forward for North Carolina. “Let the timid, the faint-hearted, the foot-draggers, the do-nothings be forewarned: We are going to make progress in this administration,” Scott said during his 1969 inaugural address. Forty years later, the recession may preclude such high aspirations for the General Assembly; lawmakers will need all their powers just to balance the budget. Even more so than in Scott’s term, this is no time for the faint-hearted. Let’s hope lawmakers close the budget gaps without causing permanent harm ó and without reversing the hard-won progress North Carolina has made through the years.

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