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N.C. panel agrees to give $20K to eugenics victims

RALEIGH (AP) ó A measure granting $20,000 each to surviving victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program of the mid-20th century was approved Tuesday by a House committee but still appears a long shot for passage this year.
The state’s fiscal situation has worsened over the last three months. The House bill seeks $18.6 million next year.
“We don’t have any money to give it,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, senior leader for the House’s budget-writing panel, which next reviews the legislation.
The House budget plan approved last weekend didn’t even set aside the $250,000 in budget proposals penned earlier this year by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Senate to establish the compensation program but provide no compensation.
Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, the chief legislative advocate to make amends over the state’s so-called eugenics program, said he wouldn’t stop fighting for the financial compensation to the victims.
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 of the 7,600 people sterilized against their will between 1929 and 1975 are still alive, Womble said.
“It’s been going on too long,” said Willis Lynch, 75, of Littleton, who said he was sterilized through the program when he was 14 while at a reform school. “I think the quicker the better.”
The state-sponsored program sterilized people considered at the time to be mentally disabled and genetically inferior as a solution for mental retardation and mental illness because they would be prevented from producing offspring.
The Legislature created in 1929 a state Eugenics Board that reviewed petitions for sterilizations, which often included those in prisons and state institutions as well as those living in communities.
After a series of newspaper stories about the program, then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized in late 2002 for the state’s role in the sterilizations.
North Carolina was one of more than two dozen states that ran eugenics programs, but it’s the only one to have proposed compensation, first back in 2003.
A state House panel led by Womble last year recommended giving each victim $20,000. Perdue also promised during her campaign last year she would compensate victims.
Perdue’s budget set aside seed money to identify and develop a compensation plan, as did the Senate. That was before news that tax collections had dropped during the spring, forcing the House to come up with an additional $1.5 billion in spending cuts or new revenues.
The money was left out of the House budget. It could still end up in the final spending plan for the next two years that lawmakers started negotiating in earnest Tuesday.
Womble said he would be pleased to see the $250,000 in the final budget but said he’ll keep pushing for the money.
“Everybody is using this downturn in the economy … as an excuse or a reason to do or not to do things,” Womble said.
In Tuesday’s judiciary committee, House members supported the concept but were concerned if the money was available. Under Womble’s bill, the compensation would be available if a living victim files a claim before June 30, 2014. The Department of Health and Human Services would determine eligibility.
“This is an awful act and I truly don’t believe that we can turn our back on things that have been done like this in the past,” said Rep. David Guice, R-Transylvania.
Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, who voted no, said the state can’t be proud of what happened but there are too many financial needs facing the state at present.
“I just don’t believe it’s the right thing for us to compensate victims for events that have occurred so long ago,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state will unveil a historical marker in downtown Raleigh next Monday to recognize the state Eugenics Board and remember those people who were sterilized. The event could build momentum to what Womble called the toughest portion of the journey to reach out to victims.
“They did not break any law. They’re not a criminal but they have to wear this scar,” he said.

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