RALEIGH – One of the hottest political rumors around the capital city these days involves Gov. Mike Easley, just completing his first year in office.
It’s been a rocky start, no question about it. Shortly after his victory in November 2000 – accomplished, to my way of thinking, in large part because he made a successful play for fiscally conservatives voters and tagged Republican Richard Vinroot as a potential tax-hiker – the new Democratic governor was handed a big smelly mess by the old Democratic governor, Jim Hunt. It’s called a budget deficit.
Hunt’s profligacy, helped along by generous amounts of pork-barrel politics in the General Assembly, had knocked North Carolina’s fiscal picture out of alignment. A slowing economy and surging expenditures for Medicaid and debt service (remember those higher education bonds that wouldn’t raise our taxes?) threatened to make the situation a lot worse in the coming months.
Easley made some good budget decisions early on, but was then seduced by the traditional Democratic temptation to hit up taxpayers rather than reduce bloated government. The result was one of the largest tax increases in North Carolina history, and the only significant tax hike in the U.S. this year. The package pushed our top income tax rate to 8.25 percent (yielding a combined federal-state marginal tax rate for entrepreneurs and other high-value professionals approaching 50 percent), hiked the statewide sales tax by 12.5 percent, raised effective prices for HMO and child health insurance coverage, and socked it to liquor drinkers.
Throughout the process, Easley complained to aides and legislators that the job was proving to be far different, and more difficult, than he expected it to be. It wasn’t just having to deal with a tough budget situation. His lottery proposal, the linchpin of his gubernatorial agenda, went nowhere in the state legislature. He didn’t enjoy the ceremonial responsibilities of the office, preferring to stay home or play golf. The whispering campaign against him in the halls of the General Assembly and around the corporate boardrooms was unpleasant.
Recently, I’ve heard from several people in the know that Easley has said he won’t see reelection in 2004. I can understand him being down about his recent experience, but I have a hard time believing that anyone with an ego large enough to seek the governorship (regardless of party or ideology) would voluntarily choose not to run again. This may all be wishful thinking by supporters of potential Democratic candidates like State Treasurer Richard Moore and Attorney General Roy Cooper, though I am not convinced that either or both will stay out even if the road to the mansion involves a primary challengeagainst the faltering governor.
Still, an open seat in 2004 would be a surprising and fascinating development. If the rumor mill starts generating a different spin on Easley’s future, I’ll let you know.