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Have the Easleys lost touch with the people?

Mary Easley, North Carolina's first lady, is a smart, capable woman whose intellect and record of public service would bring her success regardless of whether she was married to the state's top elected official.

In that sense, the generous pay raise (from $90,000 to $170,000 a year) N.C. State awarded her as an executive in residence – and the corresponding increase in responsibility – shouldn't come as a surprise. She's accomplished in law, at teaching and at administration.

Yet that big bump-up became public amid questions about lavish “cultural” missions the First Lady took abroad on behalf of the state, and a trip to Italy the couple took in May. Those trips may have been worthwhile, but together they cost taxpayers $270,000 and included extravagant meals and hotels. That's outrageous.

The trips and the pay hike aren't really related, but they are linked in the public's eye – and raise obvious questions:

The Easleys are both from relatively modest backgrounds. They appear to have chosen a somewhat down-to-earth life, despite their high-profile jobs. Have they lost touch with what is reasonable? Or are they trying to get as much benefit as possible before they leave the governor's mansion next year?

Gov. Easley owes citizens a better explanation of the travel expenses for the two. The First Lady's entourage ran up a bill at a restaurant in Estonia that included a $647 dinner featuring pheasant stuffed with homemade sausages. She had an around-the-clock chauffeured Mercedes SUV.

The gov's response: “It costs what it cost.” That's dismissing the public's concern, not responding to it, and it's not good enough.

As for Mary Easley's raise, NCSU Provost Larry Neilsen pointed out it was consistent with salaries paid other administrators with similar qualifications and duties. He's right.

Yet taken together, the whole thing hits a sour note for many North Carolinians. When the N.C. unemployment rate has just hit its highest level in four years and $4 a gallon gas has many families pinched, forgoing vacations and huddling around the kitchen table juggling figures to free dollars for fall college tuition, the First Couple jets to Europe on the state nickel, then Mary Easley gets a hefty state raise.

The Easleys are supposed to be leaders. They have some explaining to do.

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