Opinion

Easley takes his lumps but survives

When the queen had a bad year – what with the kids separating and that fire at the big house – she called it the annus horribilis, a horrible year. Gov. Mike Easley probably feels the same way, though he doesn't usually use the queen's Latin to express dismay about what's gone in his house. The governor's mansion is, of course, an example of Queen Anne Cottage architecture from the Victorian era, but for Mike Easley, an ordinary Anglo-Saxonism would probably do just fine.

He's been in some hot water since late last year when he stepped into a controversy over illegal immigrants and told the Observer he thought the state ought to allow them to attend community college and universities if they can pay out-of-state rates. His phone rang off the hook, including a threat or two from unhinged residents who didn't realize the governor's office had Call Waiting.

That put him on an uneasy footing as 2008 bloomed into a political season where the governor hoped to help make history by endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the N.C. primary over Barack Obama. She bombed here, and her opponent went on to win handily the Democratic primary, prompting a round of jokes about how the governor could pretty much write off a fat job in Washington – as if he wanted one. I don't think he does, considering how wary he is of the job he has, but who can say?

Then the governor came up with supplemental budget proposal to raise teacher salaries by 7 percent and push them close to the national pay average. He would pay for it in part with new sin taxes – a boost in cigarette and alcohol levies that had the party crowd fuming and foaming. It was pretty much dead on arrival down at the legislature, where the big dogs were muttering about the wisdom of the governor proposing tax increases in an election year. And not just any election year: One where the Democratic candidate for governor is in, according to the polls, a virtual dead heat.

But the ship really didn't hit the span until the news media reported on the cost of a recent economic-development trip to Italy the governor, his wife and an entourage of state officials took to recruit industry and boost tourism.

It's well known you can't do Europe on the cheap and maintain appearances, too, but the price tag caught the press and the public's eye and the roof blew in. The tab was something like $170 grand, and the cost included something like $52,000 for a couple of chauffeured Mercedes-Benzes to haul the official party around.

Then came word of an earlier trip Mary Easley took with state cultural officials to promote relations with European museums who might be willing to loan exhibits to museums in North Carolina. That's also a worthy goal, but the price tag on it was about $109,000.

Then the news broke that N.C. State University, where she is a faculty member, was promoting her to a post with additional duties. Her pay would go from $90 grand to $170,000. She's probably worth every penny, but how would you like to explain that as the economy is running downhill and a lot of folks are out of work?

Easley's detractors have been blistering his gubernatorial hide over that one. They weren't much mollified when the governor pointed out the dollar isn't worth as much against the euro these days – why, a hamburger with all the trimmings can run $60 over yonder. Yes, it can, but not too many North Carolinians will spend it.

So when the governor's proposals started running into trouble in the legislature, no one was surprised. After all, he is in his last six months in office – a lame duck with fewer allies that he had a few years ago when he was pushing the state lottery through the legislature.

Any accounting would probably show that Easley got most of what he wanted, including in education spending, but not all he wanted. He was still looking for more funding for his More at Four program in the final days and actually got more for a college tuition initiative in the closing hours of the legislature. When the governor signed the budget, he didn't hold a public signing ceremony as he usually does. Think he was ticked?

He also didn't get new public health inspectors specifically for poultry plants, proposed after he read an Observer series on the subject, though lawmakers did approve new safety staff for the Labor Department. And he was in a standoff in the closing weeks because legislators wanted to allow wider boat trailers on state roads on weekends and nights. The governor was threatening to veto that bill, but lawmakers were daring him to do so.

This wasn't Mike Easley's best General Assembly and it sure hasn't been his best year in office, either, though he did get a nice national award for pushing education. But for a governor who has disdained the usual trappings of politics and the demands to attend ribbon-cuttings, baby-kissings and political goat-ropings, he has survived another session of the General Assembly and wound up with a result that marks the tenures of most N.C. governors in the modern era: a few bruises and a bigger education budget.

My guess is, he'll take that any day.

When the queen had a bad year – what with the kids separating and that fire at the big house – she called it the annus horribilis, a horrible year. Gov. Mike Easley probably feels the same way, though he doesn't usually use the queen's Latin to express dismay about what's gone in his house. The governor's mansion is, of course, an example of Queen Anne Cottage architecture from the Victorian era, but for Mike Easley, an ordinary Anglo-Saxonism would probably do just fine.

He's been in some hot water since late last year when he stepped into a controversy over illegal immigrants and told the Observer he thought the state ought to allow them to attend community college and universities if they can pay out-of-state rates. His phone rang off the hook, including a threat or two from unhinged residents who didn't realize the governor's office had Call Waiting.

That put him on an uneasy footing as 2008 bloomed into a political season where the governor hoped to help make history by endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the N.C. primary over Barack Obama. She bombed here, and her opponent went on to win handily the Democratic primary, prompting a round of jokes about how the governor could pretty much write off a fat job in Washington – as if he wanted one. I don't think he does, considering how wary he is of the job he has, but who can say?

Then the governor came up with supplemental budget proposal to raise teacher salaries by 7 percent and push them close to the national pay average. He would pay for it in part with new sin taxes – a boost in cigarette and alcohol levies that had the party crowd fuming and foaming. It was pretty much dead on arrival down at the legislature, where the big dogs were muttering about the wisdom of the governor proposing tax increases in an election year. And not just any election year: One where the Democratic candidate for governor is in, according to the polls, a virtual dead heat.

But the ship really didn't hit the span until the news media reported on the cost of a recent economic-development trip to Italy the governor, his wife and an entourage of state officials took to recruit industry and boost tourism.

It's well known you can't do Europe on the cheap and maintain appearances, too, but the price tag caught the press and the public's eye and the roof blew in. The tab was something like $170 grand, and the cost included something like $52,000 for a couple of chauffeured Mercedes-Benzes to haul the official party around.

Then came word of an earlier trip Mary Easley took with state cultural officials to promote relations with European museums who might be willing to loan exhibits to museums in North Carolina. That's also a worthy goal, but the price tag on it was about $109,000.

Then the news broke that N.C. State University, where she is a faculty member, was promoting her to a post with additional duties. Her pay would go from $90 grand to $170,000. She's probably worth every penny, but how would you like to explain that as the economy is running downhill and a lot of folks are out of work?

Easley's detractors have been blistering his gubernatorial hide over that one. They weren't much mollified when the governor pointed out the dollar isn't worth as much against the euro these days – why, a hamburger with all the trimmings can run $60 over yonder. Yes, it can, but not too many North Carolinians will spend it.

So when the governor's proposals started running into trouble in the legislature, no one was surprised. After all, he is in his last six months in office – a lame duck with fewer allies that he had a few years ago when he was pushing the state lottery through the legislature.

Any accounting would probably show that Easley got most of what he wanted, including in education spending, but not all he wanted. He was still looking for more funding for his More at Four program in the final days and actually got more for a college tuition initiative in the closing hours of the legislature. When the governor signed the budget, he didn't hold a public signing ceremony as he usually does. Think he was ticked?

He also didn't get new public health inspectors specifically for poultry plants, proposed after he read an Observer series on the subject, though lawmakers did approve new safety staff for the Labor Department. And he was in a standoff in the closing weeks because legislators wanted to allow wider boat trailers on state roads on weekends and nights. The governor was threatening to veto that bill, but lawmakers were daring him to do so.

This wasn't Mike Easley's best General Assembly and it sure hasn't been his best year in office, either, though he did get a nice national award for pushing education. But for a governor who has disdained the usual trappings of politics and the demands to attend ribbon-cuttings, baby-kissings and political goat-ropings, he has survived another session of the General Assembly and wound up with a result that marks the tenures of most N.C. governors in the modern era: a few bruises and a bigger education budget.

My guess is, he'll take that any day.

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