Local News

After Major Defeat, Easley Comes Out on Top in Budget

Posted September 23, 2002 9:22 a.m. EDT

— It's not rocket science to figure out the rejection of a lottery referendum in the state House last week was a sound defeat for Gov. Mike Easley. So how did he soar again so fast?

Easley's drive for his education initiatives paid off in a handsome dividend in the state budget - which may place more lottery pressure on lawmakers next year.

His persistence on the two issues, helped by the fact that they both came to a head in the same week, helped him rebound.

"He kind of seems to be Johnny One Note, and that one note is the lottery," said Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But there is a second note, and that note is early childhood education."

Even during another difficult economic year when revenues declined, Easley's clear displeasure with versions of the budget - to the point of threatening a veto - helped him gain another $55 million for the More at Four prekindergarten program and class-size reductions.

"He does push very, very hard," House Speaker Jim Black said. "He pushes very hard to get his agenda done. ... If he had not pushed very hard, it probably not would have been done."

Legislators will be hard-pressed not to keep funding those programs at the new higher levels next year because teachers and children would suffer. Should hard times remain, lawmakers may reconsider a lottery as Easley harps on it as a way to finance More at Four and class size reductions.

Maybe that's why Easley was still optimistic about state-run numbers when he talked to reporters near the end of budget negotiations.

"This issue is not going to go away," Easley said. "It's going to keep coming back up. The education lottery is one that will come up each session."

Easley has worked the issue since he ran for governor in 2000. Last year, his office paid to bring Georgia Lottery officials to the Executive Mansion to tell lawmakers about their successes.

This year, the lobbying grew. His advisers increasingly walked the halls of the Legislature. Easley's phone calls to fence-sitters bordered on exasperating for some legislators.

He wasn't deterred.

When the Senate's budget in June didn't contain $28 million to expand More at Four classrooms and $14 million for kindergarten student-teacher reductions, he stopped the budget process and demanded more.

Senators restored More at Four but not the kindergarten money.

Over in the House, Easley got the $14 million and $42 million more to hire another 940 teachers. But a budget compromise ready to go to the floor last week was pulled when Easley saw $28 million in teacher money wasn't there because the lottery referendum - a potential source for the program - had been defeated.

Easley pulled out the stops, calling budget-writers to the Mansion for a "frank discussion" and a hastily called news conference.

"I've said it now for over a year is that I'd veto any budget that made cuts to the classroom," he said. "We're not going to do that in North Carolina."

Budget-writers threw together an additional $28 million in cuts - including $5 million each in "discretionary reductions" from the University of North Carolina and community college systems - and Easley was satisfied.

It's these kind of cuts that steamed Republicans. They complained during the budget debate that Democrats expanded untested programs for Easley during an economic crisis.

Correction and human services took hits again, even though Easley himself has been complaining about having to make his own cuts to narrow the shortfall, they said.

"I don't know how any governor who declared a state of emergency can claim victory," said Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine, R-New Hanover. "It reminds us of Rome burning while Nero fiddles."

Beyle said Easley probably didn't want to use his veto on the budget because it may have been perceived that he couldn't work with the General Assembly.

Even though he lost 69-50 on the lottery vote and struggled with legislators, Easley rejected notions that he was ineffective, pointing to the management of $850 million and $1.5 billion shortfalls in his first two years in office.

"I think to the contrary, if anything we have proved in this extremely effective," Easley said. "We were able to handle it and still maintain our stride on the agenda and get things passed."

Beyle said that the state's economic woes temper the victory Easley got in the budget.

"In the narrow sense, he won, because he got those things he wanted," Beyle said. "In the broader sense, we all lost, because the state is not meeting its obligations for health and corrections and other things."