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When Two Evils Collide

Dissecting the governor's race

For years, North Carolina state legislators have been on a spending binge. While other states buckled down, one-term Governor Mike Easley presided over tax hikes and budgets that seem to grow by nearly a billion dollars a year. As a result, we are one of the most highly taxed states in the Southeast, by some measures the highest.

Easley says he's proud the state increased funding for education during a recession, even though state auditor Ralph Campbell, a fellow Democrat, found that there was duplication between Easley's pet project, More at Four, and former Governor Jim Hunt's $200 million Smart Start program, and that two-thirds of local Smart Start partnerships revealed mismanagement. This is just one of endless examples of how Easley and many state leaders would rather hurl money at pet projects and hike taxes than do the hard work of tightening up government. Instead, Easley and state legislative leaders tried to balance the state's budget by withholding $330 million from local governments, some of which would have been spent on the schools for which they claim to be advocating.

Easley's Republican challenger, Patrick Ballantine, a lawyer and state senator from Wilmington, voted against most of those bloated budgets, and he's promising to tighten up state government and lower taxes. Problem is, he's also promising state employees an incremental pay raise that will eventually total more than $1.5 billion per year. He says he'll pay for it by modernizing the state's computer systems and cutting waste and duplication from various areas of government, like the 39 various job training programs the state currently runs.

But Ballantine provides little mathematical detail, and what detail there is doesn't add up. His cuts total $1 billion a year in savings; the pay raises will in the end total over $1.5 billion a year; and he wants tax cuts, too. Two debates haven't helped clarify these numbers much.

Ballantine's record as a fiscal hawk has a few bruises as well. It was Ballantine who in 2001 -- in the middle of an economic downturn during which he criticized Easley's efforts to cut wasteful spending -- was behind a $250,000 plan to dredge up what is believed to be Blackbeard's ship. The media later made the Blackbeard project a symbol of state government waste in its coverage of the budget.

In the 1990s, tax cuts and increased state spending eventually ran head-on into a tanking economy. Then a hurricane and two lawsuits cost the state over a billion dollars just as Easley was sworn in. He inherited what can only be described as a fiscal mess when he took office in 2001. On the campaign trail, Easley likes to blame this on Ballantine.

For his entire 10-year career in the state senate, Ballantine, who was elected minority leader, has been, well, in the minority. It can be argued that at times Ballantine supported high spending, tax cuts and budget cuts, but since his party was never in the majority, it's hard to effectively blame him for the state's fiscal muddle before Easley got there.

Now that the state has a supposed surplus -- it still hasn't returned the $330 million it kept from the counties -- Easley says that he, too, wants to lower taxes and will, after he's re-elected.

Easley's plans are only slightly more detailed than Ballantine's. Basically, he likes to take credit for North Carolina's improvement in national test scores and wants to spend more on education. The big jump in scores occurred under former governor Hunt's administration, which also deserves some credit for early score increases on Easley's watch. Nonetheless, test scores have inched up under Easley's administration, although minorities still lag behind, in some categories passing national tests at half the rate of white children.

Easley wants a state lottery and says he'll spend money a lottery generates on new school buildings, smaller class sizes and his More at Four program, which helps disadvantaged children prepare for school. To listen to the debates, the lottery seems to be the governor's main goal for his next term, though he hasn't gone so far as to pledge that he'll make another active effort to get it passed. With the majority of the legislature currently opposed to it, as is Ballantine, even Easley doesn't seem to hold out much hope that it will pass during his next term.

Ballantine, meanwhile, claims he'll find more money for education by cutting waste in the system, in particular the bloated ranks of the state education bureaucracy's middle management and non-teaching positions. Easley says the state education bureaucracy has already been cut to the bone.

And so on and so forth. If you can figure out which candidate is the lesser of the two evils here, we encourage you to vote for him.

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