House's Tillis, Senate's Berger carve own paths in legislature

jfrank@newosbserver.comJune 22, 2012 

GOPPOWER08.NE.062012.CCS

N.C. Senate Pro-Tem Phil Berger, left, responds to a question while N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis listens at a joint budget press conference held at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC on June 20, 2012.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

  • Legislative session drawing to a close The N.C. General Assembly is nearing the end of the legislative session, tentatively scheduled to run another week before adjournment. Here’s where things stand. WHAT’S LEFT Voter ID: House leaders are examining whether to override the governor’s veto of a measure requiring photo identification at the polls – a tough sell – or craft a compromise measure with a softer approach. Dental industry regulations: A much-watched measure to tighten the state’s regulations on companies that provide dental management functions isn’t moving in the House – which is exactly what the critics hoped after spending big money to lobby against it and air TV commercials. Private school tax breaks: A controversial education proposal from House majority leader Paul “Skip” Stam remains unresolved. Stam is pushing a plan to give tax breaks to businesses that make donations to fund scholarships to private schools. Sea level rise: House and Senate disagreements about a bill to limit the ability of coastal agencies to make rules using scientific warnings of sea level rise is stuck in a conference committee. The House wants to further study the issue, and it’s unclear if they will come to an agreement. WHAT’S LIKELY DEAD Eugenics: The House approved legislation giving sterilization victims $50,000 in compensation, but the money didn’t make the budget. The bill is still pending in the Senate, but Republican lawmakers are not interested in taking action on it. Immigration: The House squashed its plan to toughen state laws aimed at illegal immigrants, and a Senate-approved bill to emulate other states like Alabama and Arizona is buried in committee. Sweepstakes tax: Gov. Bev Perdue’s proposal to tax video sweepstakes and use the money for education appeared briefly in a House committee, but the issue isn’t likely to advance this year.

— Standing before a bank of TV cameras, Senate leader Phil Berger announced a budget deal this week that included major components of his keystone education plan.

His House counterpart, Speaker Thom Tillis, stood a step behind to Berger’s left, peering at the senator’s notes.

When Tillis stepped to the microphone, he confronted the defeat of his chief legislative priority, compensation for state sterilization victims, calling it a “personal failure.”

The striking moment pointed toward an emerging dynamic between Berger and Tillis, according to many political observers, who saw subtle tears in the GOP fabric compared to a year earlier when Republican lawmakers worked closely together to move North Carolina to the ideological right.

How the political undercurrents develop in the final days of this two-year session, which is scheduled to end July 2, will help determine the direction of legislative power as Republicans stand poised to control the General Assembly for years through redistricting.

Tillis and Berger said talk of a rift is unfounded, that nothing has changed.

The two insisted on answering questions about the session in a joint interview, conducted in the speaker’s office. The men sat opposite each other.

They spoke about mutual respect and a stronger-than-ever working relationship, finishing each others’ sentences and dismissing any suggestion about a rivalry or discord. Any change in dynamic this year, they said, is merely a product of tight deadlines and legislative processes.

“We have never had any difficulty stating our positions ... and we’ve been able to reach agreement most of the time,” Berger said. “In those instances when we haven’t, Thom understands where I am and I understand where he is.

“I wouldn’t call anything that we’ve had tense.”

What the future holds

To outside observers, the difference from last year to this year is readily apparent. But what it means is disputed.

John Hood, a conservative thinker at the John Locke Foundation, said the shift is a natural progression after last year, when the House and Senate dovetailed their efforts.

“There are built-in differences between chambers, not specific to North Carolina, or to Tillis and Berger,” he said. “Eventually they start to assert more independence.”

Tillis, Berger and their troops made a great show of working together last year. The two leaders routinely held joint news conferences, often emphasizing common goals, and House and Senate budget writers worked together for weeks.

The political harmony was so pronounced that Tillis praised House and Senate budget writers for working out their differences before the document was public.

The GOP tag team ended this year. Tillis and Berger appeared at only one joint news conference, the one on the budget this week. House and Senate budget writers didn’t join hands this year, giving an appearance of conflict rather than cooperation.

One more factor complicating policy making, lawmakers and lobbyists said, is the conventional wisdom that Berger and Tillis are eyeing future bids for governor or the U.S. Senate. Unlike the legislature under Democratic control, when the leaders didn’t seem poised for higher office, many of the decisions by the GOP legislative leaders are viewed through this political prism.

“We hear the rumors,” said Brian Lewis, a lobbyist for the state teacher’s association. “We’ve heard it from other legislators – you have a Senate president pro tem who is running for U.S. Senate and a House speaker who is running for U.S. Senate.”

The two men are prominent figures in the state Republican Party, raising big bucks to help their Republican colleagues this fall and serving as top surrogates for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

The political speculation about Berger, an Eden attorney, grew in April when he debuted a polished biographical campaign video more likely to appear in a statewide election than a low-budget, low-risk Republican primary contest for the state senate. Days later, Berger announced a plan to overhaul the state’s education system, a sweeping measure backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Berger fits the country lawyer political model, an experienced six-term lawmaker representing a broad rural district who won his chamber’s top post without competition.

Tillis, a Charlotte-area businessman, fueled talk about his political future during the past year as he hosted 31 town halls across North Carolina to reach out to voters. He also served as the driving force behind a bipartisan plan to compensate victims of the state’s eugenics program, courting documentary filmmakers this session and taking to the floor to make a passionate plea about the state’s chance to make history.

“I think both gentlemen kind of represent the two dynamics in N.C. Republican Party politics,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “Tillis is more akin to the moderate side of the Republican Party. ... And I think Berger is a little more conservative reflection. They are both kind of feeling their way with now truly possessing power in the legislature.”

Difference in jobs

Over the past six months, Tillis has endured a series of controversies, including an unannounced midnight special session and the resignation of two top aides who had romantic relationships with lobbyists, spurring an ongoing State Ethics Commission inquiry.

All together, some political observers believe these events weakened Tillis’ ability to push his causes, or at least served as an unwanted distraction.

“It certainly did not help him in any way,” said Bitzer. “Even though Berger is from the same party, he may be taking advantage of the situation.”

Tillis also is managing unrest in the Republican caucus, where a contingent of more conservative lawmakers wanted to see this session move in a different direction.

“This year was definitely not a year conservative politics were championed,” said Rep. Mark Hilton, a Conover Republican, voicing what others GOP lawmakers discussed only privately.

Pointing to votes that split House Republicans, such as eugenics and a measure to expand Cherokee gambling, Hilton questioned the waste of political capital and time. “How many of those (votes) can you take before that starts doing damage to the caucus – that’s where (Tillis) would be wise to look out,” he said.

In their interview, both Berger and Tillis agreed that Tillis’ job is often the more difficult because he must reach out to Democrats to get a veto-proof majority, compared to the Senate, where Republicans control three-fifths of the chamber.

Neither will give any indication as to their political future. “I am not looking at anything beyond this year,” Berger said.

“The same is true for me.” Tillis added quickly. “There’s a 2014 election, but the one I am focused on right now is 2012.”

Tillis said the troubles in his office didn’t affect how he did business this session. “It really didn’t have a material effect on what we set out to accomplish,” he said.

On major policy issues this session, it seemed Berger took the lead, political observers said.

Berger prominently stepped out on his own to push changes in the state’s education system. He talked of the importance of public education to his family, including his grandchildren who attend public schools.

Upon its debut, he said he hadn’t discussed the plan with House Republicans.

The plan was an array of more than a half-dozen changes that included a literacy plan and limited social promotion for elementary school students, a directive to local school districts to write plans for teacher merit pay, and an end to teacher tenure.

Much of the education plan was rolled into the budget. But in negotiations with House leaders, Berger’s provision ending tenure was cut and his merit pay order was softened.

Tillis raised his statewide profile championing an unlikely issue for a Republican – compensation for people sterilized by the state for being poor or mentally unstable.

For more than 10 years, Democrats, particularly Rep. Larry Womble of Winston-Salem, were out front seeking compensation for these victims. But Tillis framed eugenics board decisions as “government taking,” along the same lines of a government claiming private property.

Those supporting compensation expansively praised Tillis for working with both parties to come up with a plan.

But in the end, Tillis was shot down. Though the House budget included $10 million to compensate victims, Berger said Republican senators wouldn’t go for it.

It left Tillis saying he would keep trying.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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