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After Major Defeat, Easley Comes Out on Top in Budget

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RALEIGH, N.C. — It's not rocket science to figure out therejection of a lottery referendum in the state House last week wasa sound defeat for Gov. Mike Easley. So how did he soar again sofast?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe that's why Easley was still optimistic about state-runnumbers when he talked to reporters near the end of budgetnegotiations.

"This issue is not going to go away," Easley said. "It'sgoing to keep coming back up. The education lottery is one thatwill 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 tothe Executive Mansion to tell lawmakers about their successes.

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

He wasn't deterred.

When the Senate's budget in June didn't contain $28 million toexpand More at Four classrooms and $14 million for kindergartenstudent-teacher reductions, he stopped the budget process anddemanded more.

Senators restored More at Four but not the kindergarten money.

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

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

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

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

It's these kind of cuts that steamed Republicans. Theycomplained during the budget debate that Democrats expandeduntested programs for Easley during an economic crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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