Easley entered the packed House Chambers followed closely by several state senators and stepped to the podium to face an audience of legislators and state officials.
Before outlining an agenda for his administration, Easley first harped on the achievements of state officials over the last decade.
He pointed to the success of the rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Floyd, the quality of the state's universities and community colleges, the declining crime rate and significant improvements in education. "For the first time in recent memory, the rest of the nation is looking at North Carolina as the standard for improvement in education and child care," Easley said.
But while Easley praised the members of the General Assembly for their hard work, he also emphasized that now, more than ever, they must put aside their differences and work together. "Good government is not about Democrats and Republicans but about children and families and the citizens of North Carolina," Easley said "You have a chance to be remembered as a group that has brought permanent prosperity in North Carolina."
He added that despite North Carolina facing both a budget deficit and an economic downturn, legislators must still strive to achieve the goals they had set out to accomplish before the legislative session. "Any state can make progress in good times; a great state makes progress in tough times," Easley said. "Now is the time for North Carolina to shine."
Fiscally, times haven't been this tough in a decade.
The state is faced with a budget shortfall that has grown to nearly $800 million -- the largest budget deficit since 1991. Easley once again promised that the budget will be balanced by the end of the fiscal year. "We'll have a balanced budget by June 30. That's my job, and I will do it," he said.
Easley also called on lawmakers to continue seeking ways to improve education in the state. He said North Carolina was a national leader in preschool and higher education but still lagged behind many states in K-12 education. "We can't be satisfied with being leaders in most categories; we must be leaders in all categories," Easley said. "We can't let a budget shortfall become an education shortfall."
Easley also spoke about his support for a statewide lottery as a tool to fund two new educational programs, a platform plank he has been reluctant to address publically since his inauguration.
He said a lottery could be used to fund statewide prekindergarten education for at-risk 4-year-olds and reducing class size to 18 or less for kindergarten to third grade. "We're already funding education; unfortunately we're funding it in other states," Easley said. "I want to keep North Carolina money in North Carolina schools for North Carolina children."
Easley challenged opponents of a statewide lottery to come up with other means to fund education improvements in the state. "You can't just say you are against a lottery for education.
"Tell me what you are for."
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