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Easley Seeking to Expand College Grants, Learn And Earn

Gov. Mike Easley asked state lawmakers Monday night to provide more college grants to middle and low-income students and use technology to expand his successful early-college program so all high school students can get a two-year degree.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley asked state lawmakers Monday night to provide more college grants to middle and low-income students and use technology to expand his successful early-college program so all high school students can get a two-year degree.

In what is likely to be his final State of the State address, Easley focused largely on education, the centerpiece of his previous six years in office. He told a joint session of the General Assembly that his forthcoming budget would give children who participate in the state's Learn and Earn program the opportunity to earn a four-year degree debt-free.

"Today, it is the duty of every citizen to learn as much as they can so that they can compete in the world economy," Easley said during his 35-minute speech. "And it is our duty to offer that opportunity."

The two-term Democrat also proposed eliminating the state income tax for 600,000 residents and cutting that tax in half for another 600,000, a move he said would be affordable and just.

"The principle behind it is simple. People in poverty should not pay income tax in this state," he said.

Easley made no direct reference to former House Speaker Jim Black, who pleaded guilty in federal court last week to taking thousands of dollars from three chiropractors while backing their legislative agenda. Black resigned from office the day before entering the plea.

The governor's not mentioning Black drew criticism from Republicans.

"There is a cloud over this building as a result of the black situation and there are some things that need to be done and I would hope that we would have some leadership from the governor's office on that,” Sen. Phil Berger, R-Guilford County, Senate minority leader, said after the speech.

Members of Easley’s own Democratic party were more sympathetic.

"I think we are ready to move past that in the state, and he did talk about ethics and things that we need to improve,” Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson County, House majority leader, said.

"The biggest sale of law for cash in modern (North Carolina) history was not mentioned by the chief executive of this state," House Minority Leader Skip Stam, R-Wake, said after the speech. "I would hope (Easley) would consider that really important to this body if nothing else except than advise the members to obey the laws."

Easley, who is barred by state law from seeking a third successive term next year, praised the General Assembly for working with him since his election in 2001, when a recession created a budget shortfall that ultimately reached $1.6 billion.

Today, he said, "our state is much stronger. We have taken the toughest blows that a national recession and federal trade policies could deliver, and we are not only surviving in this new world economy, we are thriving in it."

He also mentioned the state's continued military presence overseas, calling it North Carolina's largest deployment of soldiers since World War II. Sitting in the audience was 9-year-old Breanna Bodden of Spring Lake, whose parents and stepfather are deployed in Iraq.

Easley said all three were watching the address overseas Monday night, so he asked Breanna to look into the camera and blow them a kiss.

Easley said his education initiatives follow other state commitments to early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs, along the state's efforts to lower class sizes and boost teacher pay.

"We're doing all of this not so we can maintain the status quo. We're putting more money up front so we can get better achievement out back," Easley said. "If we're not going to do that, why spend the money?"

Learn and Earn, currently is place at 33 high schools statewide, allows students to stay in high school for an extra year, and earn enough community college or university credits to get an associate's degree and a high school diploma at the same time.

Easley said plans are already in the works to expand the program to 75 high schools by the 2008-09 school year, but his forthcoming budget will take Learn and Earn statewide. Easley's spending plan would work with the university and community college systems to offer all schools college-level courses through the Internet, Easley budget adviser Dan Gerlach said after the speech.

Easley also said his budget will also include money to provide grants to all low- and moderate-income students to pay for two years of college. That would allow for participants in the Learn and Earn program to receive bachelor's degrees at a state university without borrowing.

Easley didn't provide specifics, except to say that students would have to get good grades and be willing to work 10 hours per week.

House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight, both Democrats, praised Easley's speech for focusing on education again but said they would carefully review price tags on his proposals as he winds down his gubernatorial career.

"He set some very high goals," said House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson. "It certainly wasn't a speech that says, 'Let's just muddle along.'"

Easley also proposed creating "North Carolina Kids Care," which would provide affordable insurance to an estimated 12,000 children in families up making up to three times the poverty level.

"We have seen Washington shift the risk and burden in America to our low- and middle-income families," he said. "It is time to reverse that trend."

The governor also said he would work with utilities to give lower power bills to consumers who make their homes more efficient; would recommend money for more police officers in schools; and urged the Legislature to help low-income counties with Medicaid expenses.

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Greg Clark, Photographer

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