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IN TIME OF CRISIS, LEADERSHIP IS CRITICAL

IN TIME OF CRISIS, LEADERSHIP IS CRITICAL

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It was the Great Depression, the worst of times in North Carolina. Not only did individual citizens and their families suffer, but the state's local governments mirrored that hardship.

At least 40 counties and 125 cities were in default on loan payments.Despite an atmosphere of apprehension and caution, the 1931 and 1933 legislatures were quite active. Legislators adopted a 3 percent sales tax, increased the corporate income tax and corporation franchise taxes, took over operation of public schools, assumed maintenance of\ A list of committee assignments for Triad senators and representatives - D8 roads and consolidated the state's three major universities.

These were not lawmakers to wither in the face of crisis.

Sixty years later, legislators are gathered in Raleigh facing problems that have persisted and grown worse for the past three years. Many blame campaign posturing, partisan bickering and regional feuding.

Newly elected House Speaker Dan Blue, D-Wake, harked back to the dark days of the Depression to inspire legislators to unite.

``They took bold steps to ensure that this state would be able to meet the demands of an ever-changing world. They dared to take risks for the future of this state.

``It will test our abilities to resolve the issues which should unite us, rather than belabor those which divide us.'

That will be no small task:

The state's economy is, at best, stagnant. Tax collections are coming up about $1 billion short of what the state needs to pay its bills.

High school student performance, as measured by college admissions tests, is lagging behind just about every other state in the nation.

The rate of babies dying before their first birthday is higher in North Carolina than in almost every other state.

Nearly half of those older than 25 haven't graduated from high school. That's one of the worst rates in the nation. About 20,000 students, a number equal to the population of Statesville, leave school each year without a diploma.

The average manufacturing wage for North Carolina laborers is the lowest in the nation.

The state's work force remains woefully untrained as the economy moves rapidly from a manufacturing base to a service-oriented, technical society.

Many feel the problems cry out for bold innovations and political courage. William C. Friday, former president of the University of North Carolina system, said the price of neglect is growing steeper.

``These problems are not going to be solved by wringing one's hands and wishful thinking,' Friday said. ``We will have to pay whatever the price is to get ourselves back into the competitive arenas.'

Friday noted that the state's leadership problems have received the attention of national news magazines.

``North Carolina still enjoys a relatively high living standard, but the strains from flagging leadership are beginning to show,' stated U.S. News & World Report in a May 14, 1990, article focusing on the state's high infant mortality rate and low college entrance exam scores.

``You can't reduce this to money, and I'm not arguing that money will solve the problems,' Friday said. ``But when the average salary of a baseball player is $500,000, and you don't have a public school teacher who will make that in 10 years, you have your priorities out of focus.'

Friday said people are looking for a ``message of hope.'

``People are weary of greed and what they've seen in government and industry,' he said. ``What they want is to see somebody ... working hard for a whole new relationship for North Carolina and reassert the state's place among states.'

Not everyone sees things as Friday does.

``North Carolinians would be better off if they would learn to think a little more narrowly,' said state Rep. Marty Kimsey, R-Macon, as he spoke for most of his fellow Republicans during debate about Blue's election as speaker.

``Instead of nodding at highfalutin reasons for the budget shortfall and threats to education, they should ask bluntly: 'Just what's in it for us?' '

Gov. Jim Martin's budget takes something close to that short-term view, proposing that the state needs to wait until better times before taking bold initiatives.

In his State of the State speech, Martin offered a bare-boned budget with no major initiatives or dramatic shifts in the way the state operates. It offers a local-option half-cent sales tax increase merely to replace money the state now sends to local governments.

Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, a fellow Republican who wants to succeed Martin, agrees with the budget because it does not raise taxes.

A consultant to one of Martin's study committees, however, says that while times are tough now, the state needs to commit to long-term solutions.

George Autry, an expert on the state's economy and work force, worked with Martin's special task force on work force preparedness.

``The state of North Carolina is precarious,' Autry said. The state easily made the transition during the mid-20th century from a farming to a manufacturing economy, but the change to a post-manufacturing economy is proving much more difficult.

Studies show the state will lose as many as 75,000 jobs in the textile and apparel industry during this decade, Autry said. And those workers aren't necessarily ready to be trained for the more technical jobs of the future.

``We used to train people from using their backs in the fields to using their backs in factories,' Autry said. ``Now we need to teach them to use their minds.'

The notion that this teaching can be done with volunteers is just that - a notion, he said.

``Trying to retrain a work force with volunteers is like trying to cure cancer with candy stripers,' Autry said.

``We are doomed into becoming a Third World economy, much like Mississippi or Louisiana already are, unless the state takes radical measures,' he said. ``Or we are going to have a soup-kitchen work force for a post-industrial society.'

For some folks, the state of the state isn't a matter of statistics, politics or government spending.

Greensboro Hornets General Manager Marty Steele doesn't need a fancy economic forecast or a battalion of budget experts to tell him how things stand. He sees it as he tries to sell advertising for the outfield fence at War Memorial Stadium.

``We're seeing people being very cautious, cutting back,' Steele said. ``And advertising is where people are cutting back ... Some people are choosing not to advertise with us.'

But bad times may be good times for minor league baseball when the season starts in April, he said. In times of trouble - a weak economy or a war abroad - people return to the basics, including baseball.

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