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Editorial: Get serious about opioids

Is the difference between state income tax rates of 5.499 percent and 5.35 percent a life-or-death matter?

Compare the tax cut to the opioid crisis now plaguing the state and nation. From 2013 to 2014, opioid overdose deaths in North Carolina increased 14.5 percent. In 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,567 people overdosed and died from opioid abuse in the state. That’s more than the 1,379 who died in traffic accidents.

Yet the state Senate’s initial budget included a mere $250,000 for a pilot program to fight opioid abuse. The Senate came up with $1 million more only in the 11th hour of its budget deliberations last week — actually, more like the 3 a.m. hour. According to some reports, some of the funds came from eliminating two early college high schools and a STEM program in counties represented by Democrats. This was supposedly done because the Republican leadership was irate that Democrats were holding up final budget approval with too many amendments.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger defended the move on Tuesday, saying the program cuts helped address the opioid crisis without raising taxes.

That is, the move didn’t threaten the $1 billion tax cut that Berger and others have been touting during this session. A $985 million tax cut just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, no matter what it accomplishes. Nor would it work as well in political ads.

The Senate budget totaled $22.9 billion.  Sen. Paul Lowe, a Democrat from Forsyth County, had proposed not applying the new, lower tax rate to people with higher incomes, such as joint filers making $1 million or more. That would have added $15 million back into the budget for opioid treatment, as Gov. Roy Cooper proposed. But the Republicans were not going to jeopardize their “middle class tax cut.”   

Let’s stow the cynicism and go for optimism. Perhaps the House, which is working on the budget now, can address the state’s needs without giving in to fits of pique and petty retaliation. Perhaps state representatives’ financial approach to the opioid epidemic will show serious intent instead of lip service and not play political games. And perhaps the House can schedule its final budget vote during daylight hours, rather than after midnight as the Senate did.

There’s far, far more to the state budget than can be addressed here. Suffice to say the Senate’s opioid incident is but one symptom of a deeper malady in the N.C. General Assembly and the way it is ruled.

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