Easley trumps legislature, again, with executive order

Easley trumps legislature, again, with executive order

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Charlotte Observer
Stalled state budget talks prompt mandate for $75 million in school funding
JACK BETTS

RALEIGH – It was just another executive order, one of 80 that Gov. Mike Easley has signed since taking office in January 2001, but it rattled coffee cups all over the General Assembly.

Eleven days ago, Easley ordered the state budget office to release $75 million for low-wealth schools, at-risk student programs and teacher recruiting because the legislature — droning on and on in an ineffective attempt to come up with a state budget for the next two years — simply wasn’t getting the job done.

The headline on the governor’s press release was a poke in the legislative eye: "Gov. Easley Directs $75 million to Schools While Budget Talks Stall."

Easley not only ordered the release of the money, but he also directed state officials who are not under his direct control to do certain things. He instructed the superintendent of public instruction to hire enough people to operate his Learn and Earn high school program, ordered the presidents of the University of North Carolina system and the community college system to implement a teacher education initiative and told the State Board of Education to get cracking on at-risk student services.

Usually it takes an act of the legislature to do this sort of thing. But in this case, Easley had in hand Judge Howard Manning’s orders for the state to provide resources so every student can get a sound basic education.

Yet some legislators fumed that the governor was performing a legislative function that belongs only to the House and Senate. Others privately whined that Easley was acting impulsively, springing a decision on the legislature without the advice and consent of its leadership, or its followership, for that matter.

I’ve got five bucks that says Easley did all this with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart.

Because once again, the General Assembly played into his hands, giving him an opportunity to make a unilateral move and allowing him to operate just the way he likes.

It’s no secret that Easley doesn’t care much for making routine public appearances, cutting ribbons and kissing babies. Nor does he like to get out front on a long list of policy issues that marked the administration of many of his predecessors, including Jim Hunt and Bob Scott.

He prefers to act preemptively on key public issues that he believes are overripe for action, unveiling a plan that he has labored over in relative secrecy and announcing it to an often-surprised public.

That’s a hallmark of Easley’s public career. When he was attorney general, Easley quietly engineered a national tobacco settlement, organizing confidential negotiations between tobacco companies and other states. That effort led to a multi-billion-dollar agreement that has compensated states for the health costs of smoking and fueled a number of economic development projects in this state.

In a similar way, he invited major meat-packing companies to join in private negotiations to come up with a plan for changing the way hog wastes are handled. That led to an agreement to find alternatives to open-air waste lagoons that have fouled the air, water and land in Eastern North Carolina.

And as governor, Easley has used his affinity for private negotiations to fashion a landmark agreement with utility companies over how to reduce smokestack emissions.

More recently, Easley has quietly prodded the Navy to consider other spots in Eastern North Carolina for a practice landing field, rather than one near an important wildlife refuge. The Navy is examining its alternatives.

He also has gone around the legislature before — and gotten away with it. When the state faced one of its by-now-routine billion-dollar shortfalls in early 2002, Easley ordered the withholding of hundreds of millions of tax dollars that usually went to local governments. Many legislators and local governments howled, but Easley’s action has stood up to court tests.

And later that year, when the General Assembly was mired in another extended standoff over the state budget, Easley ordered the state to spend $54 million to reduce class sizes and expand pre-kindergarten so schools could start on time.

So by now, no one should be surprised that Easley would issue an executive order directing the state to spend money while the legislature is still in session. He has little patience for the kind of foot-dragging that has marked legislative efforts to come up with a state budget. The House and Senate usually pass budget versions before the end of the fiscal year every June 30, but they act as though they are enemies when it comes to compromising on a final budget.

Curiously, though, Easley’s preemptive strike with Executive Order No. 80 seems to have jump-started the negotiating. Within a few days, House and Senate leaders announced they had reached agreement on the education part of the budget — largely along the lines that Easley wanted — and were moving on to other matters.

Those more used to the out-front leadership style of Jim Hunt and a proliferation of blue-ribbon commissions to propose solutions are often critical of Easley’s ways. They don’t think much of his preference for holding his cards close to the chest until he’s ready to play them.

But no one should be surprised when Easley tosses out a trump card to settle an issue on his own.

Jack Betts

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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