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2011 June 13 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Perdue, GOP Spar Over Education Spending Plans

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Surrounded by a who’s who of North Carolina business and education leaders, Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue took the high road in opposition to proposed education cuts from the new Republican Legislature she says are so deep they’ll choke the state’s economic engine.

“There is a discussion going on in Raleigh, and whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, a Tea Party or somebody far to the left, it’s not about partisan politics,” Perdue said during a meeting in Research Triangle Park to rally public opinion to preserve education spending. “This is about what’s the mainstay of our economy.”

Perdue could be gaining the upper hand in the tussle over North Carolina’s budget just by hitting the road.

Taking a page from the playbook of her mentor, former Gov. Jim Hunt, Perdue and her Cabinet have fanned out over the state at about 20 stops to highlight the link between public education and an economy that depends on a well-qualified work force.

Combined with recent rallies by teachers and administrators opposing cuts and demanding that temporary taxes be extended to prevent them, Perdue is shifting the debate away from the halls of government in Raleigh and toward education and business leaders outside the Capitol. They’re worried the GOP will make it harder for companies to find young people prepared for high-tech, math and science jobs.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are working to grab back the momentum they had when Democratic support for the House budget gave the appearance of bipartisanship that could derail any potential Perdue veto. Senators then took heat when they said they aimed to spend $100 million less on the public schools than the House did. Democrats argue the House plan alone would eliminate more than 18,000 public education positions.

Senate Republicans have since changed their mind. They plan to roll out a budget plan this week they say will actually spend more on education than the House while reforming the public schools, hiring more than 1,000 new teachers and letting the temporary taxes expire.

The Senate budget “makes government live within its means and puts more money in the pockets of taxpayers, while providing essential public services,” senators say in a form letter, obtained by The Associated Press, that they are sending to newspapers. The budget, the letter says, “reforms North Carolina’s broken education system.”

Senate leader Phil Berger acknowledges the governor has a public relations advantage because of her position, but denies the Senate’s spending changes have anything to do with Perdue’s tour. For example, Senate Republicans aren’t going back on their promise to let the temporary taxes expire.

“There’s no question she’s got a bigger megaphone than us,’’ Berger said in an interview, but the Senate plan, “ought to be more important than just public relations ... we’re going to put together a budget that has a message for education, has a plan for education.”

Perdue assembled an “Education Works” tour that is reminiscent of Hunt, the four-term governor who left office in 2001. He would bypass the Legislature to make his case directly to public and business leaders.

Perdue and Cabinet members have traveled from Asheville to Manteo, visiting schools, community colleges, University of North Carolina system campuses and places where job expansions were being announced. They pushed the idea that businesses will stay away from North Carolina unless they’re assured of a pipeline of high school and college graduates ready to work.

“We hope to get the message out that connects a quality educational system to jobs coming to North Carolina,” Administration Secretary Moses Carey said after a visit to a Durham high school with a 98 percent graduation rate. The cuts, Carey said, have “the potential for turning back the clock on the investments that we’ve made in our system.”

Perdue made a strong statement about the support behind her effort during last week’s round-table at Research Triangle Park. The meeting list included the top executives in North Carolina for AT&T and IBM, former UNC system President Bill Friday and former GlaxoWellcome Chairman Bob Ingram.

Still, some observers wanted more of an opportunity to influence the high-level discussion.

Matthew Tomlinson, 18, attended the event and asked the panel how to fight the loss of Advanced Placement classes at his school in the wake of education cuts. He sounded dissatisfied after Perdue told him that coming to the event was a good first step.

“I feel like that we’re in the center of this debate, yet this whole argument is taking place among the government and business leaders and school board heads,” said Tomlinson, a senior at Holly Springs High School in Wake County. “Students are just completely left to face the consequences.”

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