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Deficit brings Easley woes

Although it is likely Gov. Mike Easley will run for a second term in the 2004 gubernatorial election, five months before midterm elections some state political analysts are saying that his chances of winning may be slim.

Easley, a Democrat, has been criticized for the poor condition of North Carolina's economy and has responded to the state's budget deficit by cutting funding for the state's cities and counties and using the money to dissolve the debt.

"This has city officials in an uproar because cities and counties need those funds to thrive," said Michael Munger, chair of the political science department.

A recent Elon College poll revealed Easley had less than a 50 percent approval rating, which is unusually low for an incumbent governor, said Jonathan Jordan, state Republican party spokesperson.

Some students and administrators in North Carolina colleges and universities are upset with Easley because the cuts have negatively affected funding for higher education.

But experts noted that even in the face of budget constraints, Easley lists education as one of his top priorities. Mark Siegel, communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party, pointed to Easley's founding of the More at Four program, which helps children succeed in school. The program targets four-year-olds who fall under the "at-risk" category.

To offset education cuts, Easley is currently exploring alternative methods of raising revenue. He has proposed a state lottery to raise revenue, an idea that has historically met with opposition from both the left and right in state politics.

"A lottery by definition is a regressive tax, which means it affects people with lower income since they are the ones who usually buy lottery tickets, which are a larger percentage of their income," Jordan said, attacking the plan.

Last year, Easley also proposed a 16 percent sales tax increase.

Even as he forms a plan to steer the state out of its financial woes, critics have also cited in Easley a failure to explain his decisions to fellow politicians and his constituents.

"He has used a very hands-off approach to the handling of the budget crisis," said Jordan. "Our state has been leaderless."

Siegel disagreed with Jordan's assessment and pointed to other major accomplishments so far in Easley's term, including passage of a Patient's Bill of Rights.

Jordan also raised the possibility that Easley's chances of winning his own primary are not guaranteed. However, with two years before the primary is held, Easley still has time to wait for economic improvement.

Munger also noted that with the election so far away, it is nearly impossible to tell what might happen in the interim.

"His chances will improve if the economy does better," Easley said. "People will not necessarily attribute that improvement to him, but he will stop getting blamed for a bad economy."

Easley won election to the governor's office in 1998, defeating former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot with 52 percent of the vote. Easley, who had served as attorney general since 1993, raised his profile during a multi-state suit against tobacco companies in the late 1990s that reached a $206 million settlement. In the 1998 primary, Easley soundly defeated popular lieutenant governor Travis Wicker to earn the nomination.

In his campaign, Easley said he would make education a priority of his administration. He also repeatedly voiced his support for a lottery.

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