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Easley's Shakeup In N.C. Progress Board Surprises Many

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Lawmakers created the

North Carolina Progress Board

11 years ago to evaluate the state's quality of life and set long-term goals to improve it. It's a panel that has struggled with years of anemic funding and a job of delivering "bad news" by pointing out where the state is failing its residents.

So, Gov. Mike Easley, the largely absent ex-officio board chairman, decided to shake things up earlier this month, adding his political consultant and a longtime Democratic operative to the board and directing them to produce more than just numbers and charts.

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    North Carolina Progress Board

    "One of the things that the Progress Board has lacked -- for all of the great work they've done -- is to translate their recommendations and observations into practical applications," Easley said. "So I'm hoping to get a lot more solutions as well."

    But the change surprised longtime board members, while others questioned whether adding Mac McCorkle as Easley's substitute chairman and John Merritt as vice chairman will erode the influence of a board already loaded with Democratic appointees.

    "The Progress Board was supposed to be autonomous," said Tom Covington, the board's former executive director. "It was not intended to be politicized by having the governor's chief political consultant as its chairman."

    The board grew out of a bipartisan commission created by then-Gov. Jim Hunt to examine what North Carolina needed to become competitive in the 21st century in education, the economy and accountable government. Lawmakers agreed to create a permanent panel in 1995.

    Six years later, the panel delivered "North Carolina 20/20," a 273-page report that examined the state's efforts in eight topics and created targets for the next 20 years.

    "Our strategy has been that somebody should be able to speak forthrightly to the public policy issues that face North Carolina ... and should be able to address them without reservation," said Mack Pearsall, a longtime board member who co-chaired Hunt's gubernatorial campaign in 1992.

    But in 2001, lawmakers cut the 24-member board's annual state appropriation by nearly half, to less than $250,000. The panel has lacked a permanent executive director since Covington retired in 2004.

    Last year, Easley's office and other elected officials balked at using letter grades in a report that evaluated the state's progress toward meeting the goals set in "North Carolina 20/20." The board concluded that in 84 areas being monitored, the state had attained targets in about a dozen areas but had made little progress in health care, poverty and high school graduation rates. About 3 dozen indicators hadn't been studied for a lack of research or funding.

    Easley directed McCorkle to take part in the editing of the status report, and McCorkle called giving grades an immature idea. They never appeared.

    "Is that really going to build progress?" McCorkle asked. Such evaluations, he said, "can't be kind of done in an amateurish, sideline way."

    Easley wants McCorkle and Merritt, a longtime adviser, to devise ways the board can "better coordinate and cooperate" with similar evaluation efforts, particularly those conducted by the state's universities. He wants solutions to problems that the General Assembly can pass into law.

    "It's the duty of the Progress Board to challenge the state," Easley said. "So a good Progress Board will have a significant amount of criticism."

    But there's plenty of skepticism about whether the appointments will blemish the board's work. While McCorkle is a smart person, "if I were a Republican I would have to look twice at a report that came from the governor's political consultant," said Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal political watchdog group in Raleigh.

    The governor, House speaker and Senate leader are required to appoint the 23 remaining members, so in years of Democratic control the board has had few Republican members.

    "You need to have something independent if you want credibility," said Rep. Curtis Blackwood, R-Union, a board member.

    McCorkle said he wants a more bipartisan flavor on the board and doesn't expect to be at his post for longer than a year.

    "Our charge is really to get some life back into it," McCorkle said. "It's on its last legs unless it gets a new burst of life."

    Sue Urahn, managing director of state policy initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the handful of panels like the Progress Board across the country often struggle to push aside partisanship that could diminish the value of their work.

    "They can rise above the partisan fray, but very many of them have a rocky road," Urahn said.

    Pearsall, who has been the vice chairman until Merritt was brought in, said his colleagues are willing to listen to Easley's new leadership.

    "I'm not sure where they want to take the Progress Board," he said. "We are open to a rational, convincing argument about changing a direction."