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N.C. News this week

Senate okays House version of spending bill

The Senate approved the House version of a resolution authorizing state spending at reduced levels through Sept. 30, while budget negotiations continued Thursday.

The resolution's intent is to capture savings that both the House and Senate are contemplating in their budget plans. By adopting the House version, legislators delayed a provision to cut their daily expense money.

The original Senate resolution would have ended the $104 daily expense allowance starting Sept. 1. The House version pushed back that date to Oct. 1.

Senate Democrats said the expense allowance is necessary to allow people who are not wealthy to serve in the legislature. The resolution now awaits Gov. Mike Easley's signature.

A final budget agreement will probably not be reached until October, most legislators now believe, as House and Senate budget negotiators are currently deadlocked over how to go about a swap between $333 million in reimbursements to local governments and revenues generated by a half-cent sales tax.

Lawmakers pass bill to head off freeze on children's insurance

State lawmakers have passed legislation that will avert an enrollment freeze in an insurance program that provides health care to children of the working poor.

The bill, which now awaits Gov. Mike Easley's signature, means the N.C. Health Choice program will be allowed to continue accepting new children after Sept. 1, when a freeze had been scheduled to go into effect.

"There is nothing worse than a sick child, and we need to expand this program. It is the proper, decent thing to do," Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland County said.

The legislation will permit the Department of Health and Human Services to move $5 million from other programs into the Health Choice program. The program, which serves about 85,000 children, had been limited to $35 million in state money. In all, it costs about $140 million--with 75 percent of the cost picked up by the federal government.

Rand said preventing an enrollment freeze makes good fiscal sense because many of the children without coverage would end up receiving expensive emergency room care.

"There is a bipartisan effort both here and in Washington to continue this program," said Paula Wolf, a lobbyist for the Covenant with North Carolina's Children. "It would be devastating to freeze this program again."

Downpours cause flooding, fail to conquer the drought

A much-needed downpour dropped over the eastern region of North Carolina earlier this week, causing flooding on some Fayetteville roads and evacuations from some Cumberland County homes.

"This front is going to stay around," National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Locklear said. "And as long as we have this front, it's a good chance we're going to have the rain."

Despite Locklear's prediction the rain will continue, Bill Ellers, of the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Sampson County, said that although the moisture will help the fall crop supply, the rain will not salvage summer crops.

Around the Triangle area, U.S. Army Corps engineers reduced the water being released from Lake Jordan into Cape Fear to conserve the water supply for downstream communities. Still, Corps official Eric Farr reported there to be only enough water in the lake for some communities through the end of October. Also, Lake Michie, one of Durham County's two reservoirs, is still 22 feet below full.

UNC research studies smallpox vaccine

A report released by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientists suggests that smallpox vaccinations may be effective for several decades, possibly up to 50 years. Jeff Frelinger, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine, explained that such longevity suggests health policy officials would be more likely to vaccinate younger citizens first in wake of any evidence of smallpox as a germ-warfare agent.

Last year's anthrax scare prompted research on those who had been vaccinated up to 35 years ago. Results detected almost no loss of protection from smallpox even in those vaccinated longest ago.

Receiving the smallpox vaccine even once can be risky for people with skin disorders or autoimmune diseases, and those undergoing chemotherapy.

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