‘An equal opportunity recession’

Published 9:05 am Thursday, July 15, 2010

AHOSKIE – Financial strain at the local level; economic recovery; education; roads and political ethics – Governor Beverly Perdue did not dodge a single question here Tuesday during her visit to northeastern North Carolina.

In-between scheduled stops in Gatesville, Ahoskie and Windsor, the Governor visited the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.

Following a brief tour of the printing operation, Gov. Perdue sat down for an exclusive interview. Her responses were direct and to the point. The majority of the answers contained references to the national recession, one that has trickled down to the state and local levels.

What follows is the Q and A between the News-Herald reporter and Governor Perdue:

Q: County government, especially small-county government, like the state, is struggling to find ways to make ends meet. Unfunded mandates – most recently, doing away with state funding that supported multi-county Child Support Enforcement offices, one here that served Hertford and Bertie counties, and the cutbacks in Lottery funds – left local government officials looking for ways to fill those financial voids. What is your best advice for local government as we all wait for the economy to recover?

A: “We’re partners in this…the feds, the state and the locals. Actually, local government has been the best partner I’ve ever seen. I have not had any dissention from county government or the League of Municipalities. I have met with their associations. I have a Local Government Advisory Council that I meet with every three months. Even though the decisions have been hard, they’ve all understood that I wasn’t doing what we had to do in the General Assembly because we wanted to. We’re all in this together. It’s an equal opportunity recession. It’s hurt all of us. I don’t like the unfunded mandates any more than the locals do. I’m getting a whole slew of them from the federal government.”

Q: What’s the latest on the $500 million in federal Medicaid funding? What impact will it have if that money is not received by the state?

A: “I read one article online from the New York Times that says the people in this country are fed up with Congress because they can’t get their decisions together. We have some really great Congressmen and women and then we have some that are unwilling to do what needs to be done. I’m not sure they’ll be able to get the votes; maybe after the election, but I don’t know.

“If the funding doesn’t come in, we’ve already put a plan in the budget to cut the $519 million; so I know how we’re going to do this. Pretty soon I will begin working this plan; we wanted everybody get back and let the school districts get their year underway; get everybody grounded again.

“Next year will be the hard budget year for us. We’ll face about a three billion dollar hole. We’ll fix it; I know how we can do it, but it will be hard.

“You can see the recovery is beginning. Things are turning around, slowly; there’s going to be a new normal. I don’t think we’ll see 2007 levels again for another five to six years. Things are getting better.

“For us in eastern North Carolina (the Governor is a native of New Bern), the rest of the state now has reached where we’ve been forever. But when the economy recovers and the rest of the state goes down to two, three and four percent (unemployment rates), those of us in eastern North Carolina have to struggle with jobs and education.”

Q: Education is always a passionate issue of debate in our state. I read the highlights of the new budget and education funding was all over the board – more money for community colleges due to increased enrollment and a $70 million, across the board, reduction in funds for the UNC system plus tuition hikes at those schools. What is the magic formula when it comes to dividing the education funds that will produce the best bang for our buck?

A: “You start with education and you end up with jobs. I don’t believe that you can do anything but fund the elementary grades first because everything that you have for the rest of a child’s life starts in Pre-K through grades three and four. If kids can’t read and meet grade level (testing) then that’s why high school graduation rates are so low. The community colleges have been the economic asset to me because of their ability to train specifically for job skills. All levels of education are important, but they’ve all got to suck it up and do what we’ve all done – do more with less, just like you’re doing here at this newspaper. And fundamentally we’re going to have to do that for another year.”

Q: Good roads are vital to economic development. In your travels here in our area, you’ve witnessed the lack of four-lane highways. There are plans currently underway to improve US 158 from I-95 through Northampton, Hertford and Gates counties. The US 17 improvement project is already moving forward. Is there anything else on the state’s radar screen as far as highway improvements in our area?

A: “I led the fight to get the Mobility Fund started this year. That’s the fund that helps congestion projects. I was coming here today and you had a congestion problem on a two lane road; we were behind a whole string of traffic, there must have been 30 to 40 vehicles in that line. Congestion issues look different in different parts of the state. The Mobility Fund addresses those issues.

“The other thing I’m going to do, and we’ve already begun the hearings, is tolling some of our roads or the roads built through private-public partnerships. If we’re going improve infrastructure – and that’s not just roads, but rail and airports – local areas, if they want to do something on their own and not get in the pecking order of the line, then we should continue to authorize these types of investments. I think you’ll see at least three to four toll roads – the Currituck Bridge (a direct link from the mainland to Corolla) is already underway, the Monroe Bypass and the I-540 connector in Raleigh.

“When I was first getting into public service at the end of the 80’s I made one promise – I’m going to run for office and I’m going to four lane (U.S.) 17 before I die. I’m not sure it will be completely four laned before I die. Your roads are a lot like my roads, as they are in the west, you’ve got to be able to move people.”

Q: Trust is perhaps at an all-time low with state government. We’ve seen our former Speaker of the House go to prison and we’re still following the Mike Easley saga. What can you do in your position as North Carolina’s highest ranked elected official to restore the public’s confidence in state government?

A: “I believe in ethics and transparency. You saw the ethics bill just pass (in the state’s General Assembly). It didn’t have everything in it that everybody wanted, but since I’ve been Governor we’ve gone further on ethics in the history of North Carolina and I’ll continue to push this issue. I told the General Assembly that we would not go home without an ethics bill and I meant that. They were eager to help me do a fairly good and comprehensive ethics bill.

“Transparency – you’ve seen what I’ve done with records; I’ve thrown open the window. I will make every record I can legally make public, I think it belongs to the people.

“The other thing I’m doing that I feel is very important is that I’m out there; I don’t hide from questions, even the tough questions. I really believe that if you’re in the public domain, and I am and you are, for a part, that the standards for us are higher than they are for citizens. We ought to be willing to accept the questions and the criticism.”