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Why N.C. is really facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit 

A couple of weeks ago, state politicians officially began doing the "oh-so-broke shuffle." The state is so broke, the media reported, that legislators are even considering letting criminals out of prison before they complete their sentences to cut costs.

That's pretty broke. But before we turn a Mongol horde of several thousand "non-violent" criminals back out on the streets in desperation as state government struggles to patch a multi-billion-dollar deficit, there are a couple things that you should know.

A few weeks before "broke" became official state policy, outgoing governor Mike Easley went on one heck of a spending spree in the final days of his term -- when almost no one was paying attention.

He called it his "stimulus package."

On Jan. 5, Easley announced that three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of projects would go forward. The state would borrow $750 million for a building bonanza that now seems extravagant, given that the state can't figure out how to pay teachers, lacks prison space for thousands of inmates and has been demanding that local school systems like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools tighten their belts and hand back state money.

Some of the projects were worthwhile. There is even $110 million for prison construction in the group. But some, like $3 million for a building to house the CSS Neuse and $14 million more for upgrades to state agricultural center livestock and farmer's market facilities, are questionable.

The $2.7 million to expand Asheboro zoo's polar bear exhibit and the $13 million for a film school production design facility at UNC School of the Arts are also perplexing.

The $107 million Green Square Complex is a real eyebrow raiser. It's a two-block, multi-use, sustainable development project that is supposed to serve as the new offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and an expansion of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

The green building is supposed to "promote stewardship by example to the general public, while providing experiential learning opportunities focused on the current research and environmental issues affecting our daily lives." Why this is a priority right now is unclear.

Weeks after Easley and the Council of State put the 29 projects on fast track, state leaders shifted into oh-so-broke mode, announcing that they'd need to start scaling back prison sentences because they can't afford to build more prisons in the near future. Even with the $110 million of prison construction in the package, the state is still hundreds of millions of dollars behind where it should be just to keep up with inmate growth, a natural byproduct of population growth in one of the nation's fastest growing states.

Rather than incarcerate them, state leaders are now floating the idea of dumping thousands more criminals on an overburdened probation system that a News & Observer investigation late last year found had lost track of 14,000 probationers. According to the N&O report, 580 people have been convicted of committing a murder while on probation since 2000.

Before they throw open the prison gates, the public should know the truth. Sure, the state is strapped for cash. The economy is partly to blame for that, as are additional health-care expenses for state employees. Less-often reported is the fact that state politicians blew through nearly $3 billion in surpluses over the last three years, saving little of the windfall in extra tax revenue the state collected, which is why they are broke now. All the while, state legislators and the governor knew that major budget problems would loom in the future, as the media has reported for years, yet did nothing to prepare for it.

The groupthink in Raleigh assumes that a tax increase at the last moment can always be used to clean up the mess. Now that the poor economy has made a tax increase politically infeasible, state leaders are in a real jam; they're facing a two- to three-billion-dollar shortfall, an amount that is ironically similar to the one they carelessly blew through while the state's roads cracked and its prisons overflowed.

Easley's final three-quarter-billion-dollar hurrah in January was the appropriate end to an era of gross fiscal mismanagement in which it was debatable who was more out of control -- the governor or the Democrat-controlled legislature.

So state leaders aren't contemplating a rewrite of state sentencing laws to let or keep thousands out of prison because the economy has failed. No, they could build enough prison space to keep up with the state's growing population. But they chose instead to blow state debt capacity on the polar bears, the Green Square Complex and other pet projects instead because that is more important to them.

If that's not true, Gov. Beverly Purdue and the legislature should prove it by stopping the sale of the bonds to pay for Easley's $750 million spending spree. Since those bonds won't be sold until the end of the year, there's still plenty of time to halt these projects.

They could use the rest of the debt capacity to build enough prisons to keep North Carolinians safe. Or they could refrain from spending the money at all because they are broke.

But at least, for once, they'd be telling the public the truth.

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