Christensen

Christensen: GOP catches on fast

Staff WriterJune 12, 2011 

A month ago, the state seemed headed for a budgetary train wreck, including a possible shutdown of state government in July.

But now the trains are running on time, mainly thanks to some level-headed engineering and track shifting by Republican conductors, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis.

The legislature is likely to go home this week having closed a gaping $2.5 billion shortfall, avoiding a shutdown and having shown a willingness to compromise across party lines while keeping their campaign pledge of repealing the temporary tax increases passed by the last legislature.

You may or may not like their results, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum. In fact, nobody likes the results; it is a brutal budget.

But you have to tip your hat to their legislative craftsmanship.

Several weeks ago, there seemed to be a good chance that things would not turn out nearly so well for the Republican legislature.

The political atmosphere in Raleigh was becoming increasingly polarized. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue was talking about how much red ink she had on hand for inking her veto stamp.

Perdue was controlling the message: Democrats wanted to protect the classroom, Republicans didn't.

If Perdue and the GOP could not reach an agreement, there was likely to be the first shutdown of North Carolina government ever.

The polls show that Perdue's numbers were rising and the Republican legislators' numbers were declining. As the new guys in town, undoubtedly the Republican lawmakers would have taken the brunt of public blame for any government shutdown.

That is when the Republican leaders outfoxed the governor.

The GOP leadership showed the flexibility and the political smarts to engage in some coalition building. They won the support of five conservative House Democrats to give them veto-proof majority. To do that they had to moderate their budget, making cuts less deep to public education and Medicaid as well as handing out some pork projects to the Democrats.

The Republicans also offered some of their own ideas on improving public education: starting a plan to reduce class size in grades 1-3, introducing merit pay for teachers and adding five more days by ending teacher work days.

The story then became Democratic school plan vs. Republican school plan - a much better story line for Republicans to take to the voters.

In the end, they passed a $19.7 billion budget compared to the $19.9 billion budget that Perdue had proposed.

Make no mistake. These are hard times and this is arguably the most difficult budget since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It will cause a lot of pain. There will also be plenty of political blow back on the Republicans when people realize the extent of the budget cuts and layoffs.

But in the final weeks the Republican rookies showed they belong in the big leagues.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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