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Easley: Better Schools, Fiscal Constraint Can Coincide

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley told legislators Monday night that schools can improve, and more can be done to stimulate the state's economy even while North Carolina tightens its fiscal belt.

Easley delivered his second State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, hitting on themes similar tothose in his first address two years ago (see

text of his speech


As before, he spoke about the need to better educate strugglingstudents, recruit high-paying jobs and create a state lottery tohelp pay for public school improvements.

But Easley also urged fiscal restraint, even calling for theLegislature to give him a line-item veto. He said his proposedstate spending plan would cut another $800 million.

"The people deserve a line-item veto to cut the spending wecannot afford and do not need," he said. "I do not expect a line-item veto tobe popular in these chambers, but I do ask you to let taxpayersvote on this measure."

Easley handed state lawmakers a To-Do list that would guarantee North Carolina will shed years of budget deficits - stimulating the economy with a batch of projects that would create 100,000 jobs, and an education program that will focus on early education.

The Governor drew the longest applause when he demanded a limit on state spending that avoids future budget deficits.

"I want to guarantee that the overspending of the last boom never happens again," he said.

Lawmakers generally praised the speech, but many said they doubted a line-item veto has much support.

"We haven't heard of any (bill) sponsors who have jumped onthat yet," said House Co-speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore.

Republicans especially applauded when the governor said hisproposed state budget would include no new taxes and touted aspending cap plan.

Easley's speech follows two years of crippling economic problemsthat led to budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions ofdollars.

This year, the Legislature again will be forced to weighadditional agency cuts and tax hikes.

Easley began his remarks by noting how much the world had changedsince he last addressed lawmakers, from the Sept. 11 terroristattacks to the drought that hit North Carolina last summer.

Easleyalso warmly welcomed members of the military who were in theaudience.

He also rolled off a list of accomplishments during his firsttwo years in office, from kindergarten class size reductions tobalancing the state budget in tough financial times.

"Other states are cutting back to four-day school weeks,slashing the classroom and releasing prisoners on the streets,"Easley said. "Not in North Carolina. Not on my watch, and not onyours."

But Easley said more budget cutting will be necessary. He touted a proposal that he made last month to limit the growth instate spending by tying it to average personal income growth inNorth Carolina.

The governor said health care spending has to be reined in byexpanding wellness benefits to state employees to encouragehealthier living. At the same time, he indicated that Medicaidcould face some cuts.

Easley told legislators that he would not include a statelottery in his budget, a move that angered some lawmakers two yearsago.

Still, he made another passionate plea for a numbers game,pitching a proposal to spend some of the proceeds on schoolconstruction.

To lottery opponents, Easley said: "You think a lottery isregressive? How about packing 30 children in a classroom?"

Last year, a proposal to hold an advisory referendum on alottery was defeated in the state House.

After the speech, House Speakers Jim Black and Richard Morgan said they were glad Easley did not put the lottery in the budget.

"The education lottery was a good decision on the part of the governor not to include it in the budget," Black said.

"If we are going to consider the lottery on a straight up vote, there will not be as many votes as there would have been for the referendum," Morgan said.

Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine, R-New Hanover, said alottery had no chance for passage this year, but he said many of the ideas Easley discussed are agreeable toRepublicans, but that the two previous budget plans from thegovernor raised spending needlessly.

"There is a trust factor here that I think the people of thisstate need to pay attention to," Ballantine said.

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