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Perdue’s peculiar choices

By Chris Fitzsimon

It has now been a week since Gov. Beverly Perdue released her budget recommendations, and most of the reaction to her plan falls into two general categories.

Most Republican leaders and the think tanks they rely on to shape their misleading talking points continue to fall back on the tired and inaccurate claims about out-of-control spending and oppressively high taxes, neither of which has any basis in reality.

Many Democrats have cautiously endorsed Perdue’s proposal, or at least the overall priorities in it: helping small businesses, launching Perdue’s education initiatives and restoring some of the most egregious cuts made last session in human services, particularly in mental health.

That’s a reaction that makes more sense at first glance, though a closer examination reveals some inexplicable choices, primarily in small budget cuts to programs that are working to save the state money and turn the lives around of people who have made mistakes or students who are at risk of making them.

Perdue’s budget cuts another 4 percent from Communities in Schools, a proven high school dropout-prevention program that provided services last year to more than 150,000 students. Ninety-four percent of the seniors who received direct services graduated and 96 percent of potential dropouts remained in school.

Communities in Schools was cut 10 percent last year and then Perdue withheld another 5 percent of the budget. Deeper cuts this year make no sense given Perdue’s vow to address the state’s shameful high school graduation rate.

The day after Perdue released her budget recommendations, she announced a bipartisan effort to change the direction of the state’s criminal-justice policies and develop a system to spend less on prison beds by investing in programs that prevent recidivism and promote rehabilitation of offenders, who each cost the state $26,000 a year to keep behind bars.

That may signal a refreshing change in how North Carolina handles its prison system, but seems to directly contradict recommendations in Perdue’s budget. She wants to slash funding for the Summit House, a residential alternative-to-incarceration program for mothers convicted of a nonviolent crime and their minor children, and Harriet’s House, a reentry program for women leaving prison.

Both programs have documented success in helping women turn their lives around and stay out of future trouble, saving the state the $26,000 for every cell they don’t fill. These are exactly the kind of programs that are likely to be part of the new direction in the state’s criminal-justice policies that Perdue touted the day after she recommended cutting them.

The cuts to Communities in Schools and the residential programs for female offenders don’t even add up to a $2 million savings in Perdue’s $19.6 billion budget, making it even impossible to understand them.

Perdue didn’t have to cut the programs at all, and if it was a matter of finding every dime she could to balance the budget there are plenty of other places to look, most notably the $10 million it costs the state to provide in-state tuition to out-of-state athletes in the UNC system. The money is basically a windfall for athletic booster clubs that pay for athletic scholarships and it is defended by political action committees like Citizens for Higher Education, funded by wealthy supporters of UNC. The PAC employs two lobbyists to patrol the legislative halls and gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to legislators’ campaigns.

Harriet’s House, Summit House and Communities in Schools can’t play that high-dollar inside game. They have to count on political leaders recognizing that it’s more important to help women stay out of prison and kids stay in school than to give the Ram’s Club a windfall for another year.

The governor just let them down.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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