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The Daily Tar Heel

State Welcomes in New Generation of Politics

But in the last 12 months, the floodgates opened.

Gone are the familiar faces of state government -- Gov. Jim Hunt, Agricultural Commissioner Jim Graham, State Treasurer Harlan Boyles -- and the more than 75 years experience that came with them.

In their places, a generation of baby boomers, led by Gov. Mike Easley, have stepped up in their place.

The first female Lieutenant Governor in state history took office in January.

On the national scene, the familiar face of conservative Sen. Jesse Helms is slowly being replaced by a rising star in the Democratic Party.

But not only must these fresh faces make their own name in the looming shadows of their predecessors, they also must contend with the problems that their predecessors never got around to fixing -- a lagging educational system, budget difficulties and state politics dominated by partisan divisions.

Changes on Top

For decades, Helms has been the face of N.C. politics on the national scene. The conservative senator has stayed in office through the terms of seven U.S. Presidents and is often considered one of the most influential members of Congress.

On the home front, Gov. Jim Hunt has been the face of state government. Hunt first served as governor from 1976-1984, and then capped off his career in the governor's office with two more terms, starting in 1992.

UNC political science Professor Thad Beyle said that for the last quarter century these two figures have shaped N.C. politics -- Hunt with his moderate stance and emphasis on education and Helms with his conservative influence on both state and national politics.

But Beyle said all of that has changed over the course of the year.

Helms is on the tail-end of his political career, and has yet to decide whether he will run for a sixth Senate term in 2002.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Edwards -- who was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1996 -- was one of the finalists Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore considered to be his running mate. Although Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman was eventually chosen over Edwards, today the senator is flirting with his own run at the presidency in 2004.

Speculation also surfaced that Hunt would have been the leading candidate for the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education had Gore won the election.

But Gore didn't win the election, and Hunt has become a private citizen.

While his name is still mentioned with reverence in the halls of the N.C. General Assembly, his office is now in Easley's hands, who didn't hold his first political office until Hunt was nearing the end of his second term as Governor.

On his way to the top of North Carolina's political ladder, Easley eliminated Democratic former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker and a Republic former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, both established members of their own party.

But Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's program on Southern politics, media and public life, said Easley was seen as somewhat of a political outsider and was not the favorite of Democratic party leaders.

"(The election of Easley) may be a sign that the electorate is changing and voters want a new approach," Guillory said. "When the voters chose Easley, they were choosing a fresh approach, not just the party establishment -- from either the Democrats or the Republicans."

Facing the Fire

But while Easley is no Hunt, in many ways Easley has not only inherited Hunt's problems but also inherited a similar political agenda.

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Easley did not get the honeymoon period that many incoming politicians receive, instead just a month after he took office he had to declare a state of emergency in the face of a budget deficit that approached $800 million.

A few months later, while Easley seems to have gotten a handle on the state's budget shortfall, both the governor's office and the legislature are faced with the daunting task of building a budget for the next biennium. Legislators are looking to slash the budgets of just about every state agency.

To complicate matters, the narrow margin in the House has made it difficult for Democrats to consider tax increases to increase the state's inflow of revenue.

"(The tax increase proposals) are being slowly strangled," Beyle said. "There is almost an undue caution that we will not mention the t-word."

Beyle said the current unwillingness of state legislators to even consider a tax increase can be traced back to the historic 1994 election, when Republicans claimed the House for the first time in the 20th century. The chamber swung back to the Democrats two years later, but the close split between the two parties has remained ever since.

The November elections produced only a four-seat majority for the Democratic party in the House.

In January, Rep. Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, won the post of House speaker only after striking a deal with Republican leaders. Under the deal, all House committee had co-chairmen from both parties, another political first.

Legislators seem to have differing views on whether the close split of the House will create more or less partisanship.

"There has been a close margin in the House since 1994," said Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Guilford, who held the post of House Speaker in 1994. "Any time you have a close majority, there is going to be a partisan divide."

But Sen. Frank Ballance, D-Bertie, said the General Assembly is more bipartisan than ever before. "If you look at the House, the speaker has had to reach out to Republicans to keep his post," Ballance said. "In the Senate, president pro tempore has always been fair with members of the other party."

But Beyle said the situation in the House could become more contentious over the summer as legislators form a state budget and begin the process of redistricting. "The years that you have redistricting is when state politics get quiet hot."

The Ongoing Agenda

Toward the end of his term, Hunt was commonly referred to as "The Education Governor." And while Easley has big shoes to fill, he seems to be following in the same footsteps. In his State of the State Address, Easley unveiled legislation to decrease class size for kindergarten to third-grade and instituting a pre-K program for at-risk children.

Guillory said the strong push for education improvements has been driven by the state's economy.

"What you've seen over the '90s is an extra push, fueled by the economy, to advance what has been a major Achilles' heel in the state -- education," Guillory said. "The state as a whole -- the governor, legislature, constituents -- really want to fix the state's elementary education."

But the focus on education has forced and could continue to force legislators to make tough choices. The founding of Smart Start and increasing teacher pay have squeezed money out of state coffers. And Easley's plans for education, combined with the state's fiscal difficulties, have state legislators considering a statewide lottery to fund education improvements.

But Brubaker said it's the job of the legislature to identify the most immediate needs and set priorities.

"You only have so many dollars to spend on state programs," Brubaker said. "Sure you have to make choices, whether you have to focus more money toward education or anything else, that's life. Welcome to the real world."

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