Home Opinion OPINION: N.C. legislature sacrifices basic human and constitutional rights on the tax...

OPINION: N.C. legislature sacrifices basic human and constitutional rights on the tax cut altar

Most Americans take it as a given that prisons and jails are dreadful places in which to spend much time — especially for the people incarcerated there. That said, even those who proudly embrace the “tough on crime” moniker usually acknowledge that there’s a limit to how miserable prisons and jails can be made.

If a state government attempted to maintain a 21st century version of the Civil War Confederate hellhole known as Andersonville, even the most conservative judges in our judiciary would rule it a violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights and order that they be immediately housed in a reasonably safe and modern facility.

And this fact serves to lift up a simple truth about the rights of Americans and the laws that impact them — namely the inextricable link between rights and money.

As has been repeatedly demonstrated in countless court rulings down through the decades, there are times in which it’s simply impossible to honor and enforce the basic rights of individuals without raising and appropriating public dollars.

The constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t mean much if the government is still free to house humans in animal pens whenever it declines to raise the tax dollars to do better.

All of this came to mind last week when the good people at the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina and the Cooper administration’s Department of Health and Human Services announced that they had agreed to settle a longstanding lawsuit about the services our state provides to people with disabilities.

As NC Newsline’s Lynn Bonner reported, Disability Rights filed the lawsuit — known as Samantha R. — 2017 because the state was failing to provide enough community or home-based services to allow people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to leave institutions or avoid having to live in them.

There are several aspects to the lawsuit, but one of the most important and notable involves the fact that for years, North Carolina has kept thousands of families in desperate need of services stuck on an absurdly long waiting list that can take years to get through. As of December 2023, 17,500 people were on the list. Indeed, the list is so long that many people die before they ever get to the top. Advocates say there are also likely thousands more who deserve to receive services and be on the list, but who just don’t know about it.

And so, the idea that adversaries will now work together over the coming years to develop a system that provides more services to families – families that currently must devote vast and debilitating portions of their lives to acting as caregivers and case workers — is great news.

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Unfortunately, there’s a big elephant in the room here that’s not a party to the settlement and that must inevitably play a big and important role in any real and long-term solution: budget writers in the state legislature.

While the prospect for creative solutions in the settlement — better accessing federal dollars, developing new efficiencies and improved service modes — are important and worth celebrating, it strains credulity to imagine that the state can truly deliver all the services needed without appropriating lots more money to train, hire and retain the thousands of professionals it will require to help the families in need.

And thus far, tragically, the Republican leaders of the state legislature have demonstrated no inclination to do so — either by spending a meaningful chunk of the billions of dollars they’ve squirreled away in so-called “rainy day funds,” or by revisiting the destructive tax cutting spree of the last decade-plus that’s effectively slashed overall state and local government investments by more than a third.

The same basic fact pattern is at work in another Disability Rights lawsuit known as Timothy B., in which the state is accused of warehousing of foster children with disabilities in psychiatric residential treatment facilities rather than providing them housing and community services.

And it’s also at work in the world of public education, where the 30-year-old Leandro case (and its supposed guarantee of a “sound basic education” for all the state’s schoolchildren) has been effectively rendered meaningless by a legislature that denies any judicial authority to review its spending choices and a newly reactionary state Supreme Court that’s repeatedly revealed itself over the last year to be a nothing but a legislative rubberstamp.

In short, welcome as the Samantha R. settlement is, — and kudos to both the Disability Rights advocates and state Health and Human Services officials who worked it out — ultimately, its promise of providing people with disabilities all the services truly need and deserve will likely remain a pipedream without the legislature appropriating the necessary funds.

And as we’ve learned repeatedly over the last dozen years, when it comes to cruelly prioritizing tax cuts over basic human and constitutional rights, few do it better than the leaders of the North Carolina legislature.

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast. Republished from ncnewsline.com.