Entering the last year of his first term, Gov. Mike Easley is looking back on a busy year and preparing for his upcoming re-election campaign.
After consecutive years of budget shortfalls, this year's budget seems to be on target. He fulfilled campaign promises to lower class sizes in the early elementary grades. But getting the General Assembly to approve a statewide lottery still eludes him.
Easley sailed through national disasters such as Hurricane Isabel and survived man-made storms, such as the partisan bickering in a divided General Assembly. He crashed a racecar at Lowe's Motor Speedway and managed to only have his ego bruised.
Republican challengers are itching to take him on. They say he's not been engaged enough in the state's affairs. They also chide him for taking money from local governments and raising taxes to balance the state's books.
Easley recently provided insight into his on-going quest to bring a state lottery to North Carolina.
Q: Will you push for a lottery this year?
A: The lottery is not going to go away. The Legislature sooner or later is going to have to let people vote on it. They want it. The Legislature keeps blocking it. I'm going to keep fighting for it and keep bringing it up and twisting arms to get it.
Obviously, we know now with Tennessee opening up we're losing dollars, not to just South Carolina and Georgia like we used to and Virginia, but now to Tennessee. The question is not whether we're playing the lottery. Everybody in North Carolina knows that a lot of people in this state are playing the lottery. The question is are we going to keep the money in North Carolina or are we going to send it other states?
Right now, we're sending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to other states to build new schools while we're packing our kids in trailers in this state. Not only are we going to fight for it, I think we can get it passed.
But I think it's important to say what we want to use it for. There are three items that are particularly important. One is the (pre-kindergarten program) for at risk 4-year- olds, the More at Four program that has now gotten 10,000 in it. We can accommodate about 40,000 at risk kids, which eliminates the achievement gap.
Second is to lower the class size to 18 in grades K through 3.We've done that in kindergarten, first and second grade now. We need to do third.
The last is we have to help local governments with school construction. The school age population is growing in this state.
In so many states they would take the lottery money and put it toward education and then take that much out of education and put it someplace else. That's supplanting. We're not going to do that. We're going to have a separate fund that those dollars go into for those specific purposes. That way we can measure it and help local governments and our schools at the same time. We're making great progress in our schools, but those dollars would help.
Georgia has $750 million last year from their educational lottery that we don't have in North Carolina. That means when times get better, they'll be able to reduce their tax burden and we will not be in that same position in this state.
You recall before we ever asked for any taxes, back in 2001, I pushed for six months to get the lottery. The Legislature said no, no, no and no again. It was only after that, in July, that in order to not make deep, drastic cuts in education, we had to go to that half-cent (sales tax) increase. That's something we wouldn't have done if we had a Legislature that was willing to give us a lottery.
Q: You have a bipartisan coalition in the House that tends not to take up controversial issues. Do you think it will be tougher to pass a lottery through this House?
A: I think giving people the right to vote on a lottery referendum I can get through the Senate pretty easily.
The House is where the problems are. I think what it is going to take is this - I think we're going to have to start keeping up with who is voting for it and who is voting against it and letting the people out in the communities know that. All we're asking the representatives in the House to do at this point is to give the people a right to vote on it. Whether they vote yes or no, we just want to give people the right to vote on it.
If they're not willing to do that then we need to let their constituents know and they can hear from their constituents, which will mean a lot more than hearing from me. But we're planning on making a real effort to make that an issue this time until we get the people's right to vote out there and done. This issue is not going to go away until they get a vote.