Berger to take Senate reins

Republicans choose leader

Staff writerNovember 19, 2010 

  • Sen. Jim Forrester of Gaston County was nominated deputy president pro tem.

    Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale was chosen Senate majority whip.

    Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord is caucus secretary.

    Sen. Jean Preston of Emerald Isle is caucus liaison.

  • On Thursday, state Sen. Phil Berger laid out five goals for the new Republican Senate:

    1. Write a state budget with no tax increases and with the intent of letting temporary sales tax and income tax surcharges expire on schedule.

    2. Have elections on time after legislative and congressional districts are redrawn. This would require having districts drawn in time for a federal review and avoiding lawsuits over new districts.

    3. Make two changes that would affect voters and the oversight of elections. One would require voters to show photo identification. Another would change the makeup of the State Board of Elections, which now has three Democrats and two Republicans. Berger wants to expand the board membership to include three Democrats and three Republicans.

    4. Increase the number of charter schools, schools funded by taxpayers that are exempt from some of the regulations traditional public schools follow. Allow differential pay and merit pay for teachers. The best teachers would make more money, as would those specializing in math and science.

    5. Exempt North Carolinians from requirements of the new federal health care law that will make most residents purchase health insurance for themselves and their dependents. A state law would not be the last word on the matter. Results of federal lawsuits would determine whether the federal mandate is constitutional.

— Senate Republicans took the expected step Thursday toward making Phil Berger the chamber's leader, while House Republicans were talking about shaking up the office of speaker by limiting its power.

The full Senate will vote on the president pro tem Jan. 26, but with a 31-19 advantage, Republicans have enough votes to pick the chamber's leader. The House is scheduled to elect a speaker the same day, but House members are still campaigning for that job.

This is the first time in more than a century that Republicans have held a Senate majority. Berger, who lives in Eden, about 100 miles northwest of Raleigh near Virginia, would be the first Republican elected pro tem since the position became a super-charged job with duties that include naming committee chairmen and making appointments to state boards and commissions.

Berger, minority leader for the past six years, faced no competition Thursday for the top job and was nominated on a unanimous voice vote, said Brent Woodcox, a state GOP spokesman who observed the closed-door meeting.

State Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville car dealer, was unanimously elected majority leader.

The House Republicans' meeting Saturday promises more competition, with Reps. Paul Stam of Apex, the minority leader, and Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County as top candidates for speaker. Reps. Ric Killian of Mecklenburg County and Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County also are running for the job.

House Republicans, who gained a 68-52 majority in the recent elections, could be in for a heavy discussion of new rules that could greatly restrict the next speaker's power. The person Republicans select Saturday is likely to win the speaker's job in the formal vote in January.

In an e-mail message sent this week, Rep. John Blust of Greensboro asked his colleagues to consider rules that would take away the speaker's ability to appoint committee chairmen and committee members, assign offices, control the flow of legislation through committees or hire staff. Those responsibilities would shift to the Republican caucus in most cases, under Blust's proposal. Even the public should have the chance to get bills heard, Blust said, by persuading 61 members to sign a petition to get a proposal out of committee.

Preventing abuses

Blust said the changes would prevent the authoritarian abuses of the past and fulfill the Republican promise to end "pay to play" because special interest appeals to the speaker would no longer guarantee bills would be killed or advanced.

The speaker would retain the powers of the chamber's recognized leader and have the power to make appointments, he said. But responsibility for some significant decisions would shift to the 68-member majority.

"In some ways, this would make the running of the House more difficult, Blust said. But "it would prevent the abuses we've seen in the past."

Blust said some of the speaker candidates have responded to the suggestions. He doesn't know what the caucus will decide Saturday but wants the group to vote on the rules changes before it votes for speaker.

Stam said five or six of the items on Blust's list came from Stam's own plan. Stam wouldn't say which ideas were his. Some of Blust's suggestions would lead to an unwieldy session, Stam said.

"There are some good suggestions there," Stam said. "Taken together, it would mean we'd be in session 24 hours a day for the next nine weeks."

House and Senate Republicans largely agree on their top priority: closely examining state spending and dealing with an expected $3.5 billion budget hole.

Senate Republicans want to allow more than $1 billion in temporary sales tax increases and income tax surcharges to expire as scheduled.

"My intent is that those taxes would expire," Berger said. "I would say our members would feel the same way about it."

In interviews, Berger's colleagues credited him with helping formulate a strategy for winning the majority that included recruiting candidates in nearly all districts, and helping raise money to get them elected.

Berger also raised more than $500,000 for the election, handing out most of it to other candidates. Brown raised more than $325,000.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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