Hunt pleads case for Smart Start to lawmakers

Posted March 23, 2011 3:55 p.m. EDT
Updated March 23, 2011 6:25 p.m. EDT

— Former Gov. Jim Hunt and a number of business leaders urged lawmakers Wednesday to avoid damaging the Smart Start early childhood program Hunt helped create nearly 20 years ago.

Hunt said he could accept the 5 percent reduction to Smart Start funding that Gov. Beverly Perdue called for in her budget proposal, but he suggested deeper cuts would harm the nationally recognized program.

"When you've got something this good, you don't want to mess it up," he said.

The four-term Democratic governor worked with the General Assembly in the 1990s to create Smart Start, which funds health screenings, parent training and child care to families so children are prepared to enter kindergarten.

Although he's been out of office for 11 years, Hunt still has a rock-star quality in the Legislative Building, and he has been using that clout to get his message across to lawmakers. He said he has spent more time in the building in the past few weeks than he had in the past several years combined.

"I'm just trying to educate people," he said. "We have a lot of new members of the legislature, and we want them to learn about what this is, how it works and the good it's doing."

"I can tell you from having been an appropriations chairman while he was governor, until they give him what he wants, he will be unrelenting," Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said he expects lawmakers will consolidate Smart Start with More at Four, another program aimed at preschool children, and cut their combined budget by at least 10 percent.

"(We'll) try to come out with one program that's streamlined, that's merged and is effective," said Tillman, R-Randolph.

Still, he said, he recognizes the force he has to deal with in Hunt until the budget is approved.

"He was a very influential governor, (and) he still lobbies hard," Tillman said.

“We’ve got to keep this help going for the children and for the economy. Listen, our economic future and our jobs future is at stake,” Hunt said. “In some ways, the earliest education is the most important education.”