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Fun with statistics 

A state-ordered study of the death penalty recently found that defendants are three times more likely to receive capital punishment in North Carolina if they kill a white victim. The study, funded by taxpayers, will now be used by many of the state's death row inmates to argue that they can't be executed because that would be racist. (Death penalty studies aimed at proving racial bias now mostly focus on the race of the victim.)

Opponents of the death penalty and newspapers across the state quickly seized the study as proof of racism in death penalty trials. Perhaps, but they neglected to address one perplexing issue. According to the 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, about 85 percent of those who kill white people are white people.

Could this mean that white killers are actually more likely to get the death penalty because they mainly kill white people? And if 90 percent of black victims are killed by black defendants, wouldn't black killers be less likely to get the death penalty by that measure if their victims were valued less by the justice system?

Unfortunately, the study didn't clearly address that. I doubt anyone else will either.

When Budgets Kill: "People will die!" one unhinged Raleigh protester claimed last year.

He was protesting the cuts the legislature was considering to close the billion-dollar state budget deficit. They eventually closed it with a tax increase and stimulus money, but it wasn't pretty. Teachers across the state got pink slips, prisons were closed and general hysteria ensued.

That, unfortunately, was merely the beginning of the budget tsunami. North Carolina will face one of the biggest budget shortfalls in the nation in 2011-2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Only California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York and Texas are projecting bigger budget holes than North Carolina in terms of total dollars, the NCSL reported. The gap, at $3.2 billion, Raleigh's WRAL reported, is a whopping 16 percent of the state budget. That's massive. For the last few years, state legislators have been closing the hole with billions in stimulus money, but it looks like that pot of gold is about to run out.

Unless the economy comes roaring back, which increasingly looks unlikely, next year's budget process will be a massacre, with red ink all over the floor. Two weeks ago, the Obama administration forecast unemployment over 9 percent through 2011. At that level, there is no way tax revenue is going up significantly.

Haven't heard that much about this? That's because legislators are up for re-election this fall, and no one wants to discuss how they made a mess this big. Or the fact that tax cuts that are set to expire will have to be extended with millions of North Carolinians still unemployed and the economy in shambles.

Legislators also don't want to talk about the massive tax hikes or huge cuts they'll have to enact to balance the budget. That could mean more prisons shut down and more teachers let go. On the local level, where the county is already in a desperate budget situation after 10 years of spending itself into oblivion and more than doubling the county debt, it could spell major cuts. State money bolsters schools here. With decreases, you'll see schools closing or more libraries closing, or both, probably.

So for right now, the coming deficit gets a mention here and there. After the election, around February 2011, legislators will begin to feign shock as to how this happened. Everyone will blame the economy. Outraged library patrons will be back on the front page with tears streaming down their faces, demanding to know how this happened.

Or the federal government could decide to bail us out again, racking up billions more in debt in the process. Whatever the case, sit back, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.

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