Capital - January 2004

Hunt takes a look back at the future
By Ned Cline

Jim Hunt can stand behind his desk on the 21st floor of a downtown Raleigh office tower and gaze into what was once his domain. His office with the law firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice overlooks the Capitol and the Legislative Building. For 20 years — 16 as governor and, before that, four as lieutenant governor (under a Republican governor) — Democrat Hunt reigned over those buildings and much of what went on inside them.

The view from his office is no accident. The fact that Hunt has been out of office three years does not mean he has surrendered influence over what happens in North Carolina and across the country, especially in the realm of education. Always driven, there is no quit in him.

But at age 66, with his once famously thick black hair gray and thinning and a slight stoop in his gait, he has become reflective about his public successes and shortcomings. For example, he laments not doing enough to find better, faster solutions to the state’s environmental problems.

“I wish I had worked harder on preserving our environment. I think I worked pretty hard in the last few years in office, but if I could do it over again I would have pushed harder from the very beginning. I wish we had preserved more green space. You can’t have too much parkland, and you can’t do too much to preserve our beaches. I should have done more.”

He also concedes that legislators — with his blessing — cut too many taxes during the flush economy of the ’90s, a move that proved politically popular but turned out to be financially unsound. “We cut the sales tax on food, and that cost the state hundreds of millions” — while saving many families less than a dollar a week.

“We cut a whole bunch [of taxes], taking big whacks out. We thought we were doing the right thing and could cut and not miss it. And then the bubble burst. We need to learn from that. I am sensitive to overtaxing, but we should not fail to make essential investments in programs that help us succeed. Businesses do that, and governments need to do that, too.”

The time has come, he says, to find new sources of revenue. “I am now concerned that so many people are saying they’re not going to increase any kind of taxes or fees and they don’t care what happens to [the state]. That’s wrong. It is time to look at some increases in revenues. The legislature isn’t about to add the sales tax back on food, but if growth is not giving you enough to meet the needs, then you have to look at something else.”

He suggests looking at what he calls “visitor” fees — taxes on hotel/motel bills and other things visitors pay while in the state. “We’re getting a lot less than most states on those kinds of things,” he says. And without specifically calling for new levies on tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, he concedes that they’re an option lawmakers should consider.

“I’ll let someone else decide what is the best source, but we should not [again] make the mistake of becoming so cautious that we don’t make the necessary investment that we must have to meet the needs.” Those needs, he says, include more money for early childhood educational development. The state, he says, ought to double its investment in such programs. Both he and Gov. Mike Easley have been unwavering advocates of these efforts.

Hunt, incidentally, gives his successor high marks for his recent efforts — after a slow start — at promoting economic development. Recruiting industry was always high on Hunt’s agenda, and Easley has been criticized for not doing enough. “He has learned a lot about this and is making progress, but you have to remember he came out of the attorney general’s office where that wasn’t part of his job, and he had all those budget problems to deal with. He and I talk often about this, and if he is re-elected, as I hope, the state will do well in this area. He is getting better and better.”

Hunt insists he is out of politics for good — as a candidate — but will continue to work for those who fit his philosophy. “I consider myself a pro-education and pro-business Democrat and will support those who fit that role regardless of political party. I have no use for extremist candidates, either in my party or the other one.” He’ll back Easley for governor and Erskine Bowles for the U.S. Senate.

It’s time, he says, to put the issue of a state lottery on the ballot. “I have never liked a lottery, but we have allowed people to vote on other topics, and I say let the people vote on this. It’s not a cinch that it would pass. It may be unfortunate public policy to have a lottery, but it is not unfortunate policy to allow the people to vote.”

Hunt also would like to see changes in the 30-year-old structure of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. “It’s time to look at it, but not to dismantle the system. That would hurt UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State because the other schools would have more collective power than those two alone. But I do think the governor ought to have some of the appointments to that board.” Under the present structure, the General Assembly appoints the board’s 32 members.

Since leaving the governor’s office, he has used his energy and initiative to create the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, a national school-leadership project that is part of UNC General Administration and housed near the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. Funded with private money, its goal is to help elected leaders nationwide, starting with governors, learn what they can do to make schools work better. It is the latest chapter in Hunt’s dogged effort to improve public education, starting before kindergarten.

The center, he says, is proving its worth. After he made a presentation on it to the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Microsoft founder and his wife donated $11 million to improve high schools in this state.

“I have seen many good things happen in education, especially in North Carolina, and I’ve seen some leaders who were pretty ineffective in making changes and making schools work. [The institute] works at what I call the intersection of politics and policy. We are focusing on elected leaders who can make public policy and get funding for it. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been and feel as fulfilled as I have ever felt. This work needs to be done.”

He practices what he preaches about early education. When his 16-month-old granddaughter visits his home on a farm in Wilson County, he spends time at the breakfast table reading to her, as he has his other grandchildren, before going to work. “That can make a difference,” he says. “You can see it in a child’s eyes.” That’s when Hunt’s eyes also brighten up. When he speaks as a grandfather, his reality quotient, always high, gets even higher.