RALEIGH — Here’s what I don’t understand about Gov. Mike Easley’s decision to withhold $209 million in local tax revenues in an attempt to balance a state budget that is nearly $1 billion in the hole. Why did the governor, a canny politician by all accounts, choose an alternative that guaranteed many weeks, if not months, of horrible press coverage?
Naturally, statewide elected officials crave to be in the media spotlight as much as possible. And, yes, to some extent the old maxim applies: better to have bad coverage than no coverage. But by whacking tax sharing and reimbursements to cities and counties, Easley transformed what had been primarily an inside-the-Beltline, state government story — the recurrence of budget deficits after last year’s pathetic legislative session — into front-page news.
And in virtually all of the stories, he comes off as the villain.
Easley (or his advisors) should have known this would happen. Most local newspapers in North Carolina pay scant attention to the state legislature. They may run wire-service copy or an occasional editorial, but they do not cover it like the metro papers do. More importantly, local television news has largely abandoned the state government beat. When I began work as a columnist and commentator at the General Assembly in 1989, several TV stations still maintained bureaus there. No more.
But local TV still cares about local news, as do all ratings-driven media organizations. In a stroke, Easley gave them a juicy local angle on a statewide story they probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to without it.
He could have reduced state spending by the same amount through tapping the tobacco-settlement proceeds and more unspent Hurricane Floyd relief money. He would have taken some hits down east, and from interest groups and insiders counting on the chance to dole out pork-barrel grants, but there wouldn’t have been daily headlines and news broadcasts showing heroic mayors standing up against a tyrannical governor.
It would have been a better public policy, too, in case anyone is interested.