RALEIGH – Gov. Mike Easley, closing out his first year as governor, gave a series of obligatory interviews over the past couple of weeks. I caught several of them, and was struck by two things.
First, he wasn’t nearly as comfortable as he usually is in front of a camera. One segment in particular reminded me of the classic SNL skit where Martin Short plays the nervous tobacco rep. I half-expected the governor to pull out a cigarette and start shaking it furiously in his fingers. I don’t know whether Easley was just having a bad day, but he looked nervous, even defensive.
Second, he had something to be nervous and defensive about: his explanation of why North Carolina had to be the only state imposing a major tax increase on its citizens in the midst of a war and a recession.
You see, our governor had a plan.
That’s the word he used in an interview with WRAL-TV in Raleigh. The plan, Easley said, was to increase spending on education in the midst of an economic downturn, while other states were slashing education to the bone, so that North Carolina would come out of the other end with a competitive advantage. It was a “calculated risk,” he said.
No, it was just dumb.
No state slashed education spending this year, as Easley surely knows. No governor or state legislature could get away with doing that. Yes, education expenditures may have grown more slowly than the rapid pace set in recent years, due to slower growth in state revenues, and in some states there may have been no growth at all. But no one cut their education budgets deep enough to leave a lasting impact.
North Carolina, on the other hand, faced a much more serious fiscal deficit than most states did, and still our budget will grow by more than five percent in 2001-02. Our education budget will grow at a slower rate (the biggest spending increase is a double-digit surge in Medicaid) but it will grow, funding higher teacher salaries as well as some new spending on class-size reduction, university subsidies, and other programs.
All the humbug from the media to the contrary, North Carolina never faced a painful and dramatic choice between educating our children and holding the line on taxes. Both were possible. Easley and the state legislature left hundreds of millions of dollars in potential budget savings on the table, including someefficiency gains they could have made in education. For the governor to equate every dollar we squander — on surplus administrators, on support services that should be contracted out, on forced busing for social engineering purposes, on useless university research, and on teacher aides that add little educational value in the classroom — to “creating a competitive advantage” vs. other states is absurd.
If North Carolina really wants to compete with Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and California in wasting the taxpayers’ money, I feel certain that they will let us continue to win. Now with the highest tax burden on this list, North Carolina is looking about as competitive as the Carolina Panthers, who at least have the dignity to admit that they are losers.
So much for Easley’s “plan.” Now we know why North Carolina lost so many court cases during the 1990s.