Lawmakers in for a day this week, but promise to move fast on Jan. 30 return

Leaders talk cooperation, but hot-button issues still on agenda

lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

The General Assembly returns to work for one day this week to prepare for a session that could bring about the most rapid and deep overhaul of state laws and policies in recent memory.

Lawmakers convene on Wednesday to elect chamber leaders and work through other formalities now that Republicans have expanded their majorities in both the House and Senate. With a governor from the same political party, Republican leaders plan to plow new ground and revisit issues they could not get past House Democrats or former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue last session.

Legislative leaders expect members will have bills ready for consideration by the time they show up for the first day of the lawmaking session Jan. 30.

“When we get back at the end of the month, we should be ready to begin having committee meetings and moving bills,” said Senate leader Phil Berger.

He said newcomers – who account for nearly a third of the 170 legislators – have a few weeks before the session starts to get acclimated.

In the House, Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, has appointed committee chairmen and announced committee assignments. Tillis has said he wants efficiency and a pace akin to the 2011 session, according to his spokesman, Jordan Shaw. Republicans in 2011 boasted they had the shortest “long session” since 1973, at 87 days. The legislature, however, returned several times for mini-sessions after they formally adjourned the long session in mid-June 2011.

Republican and Democratic legislators said they expect to work together on new laws.

“We’ll still be talking to Democrats,” said Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, whom House Republicans have chosen as House Speaker pro tempore. The formal election is Wednesday. Stam said he expects that narrow cliffhanger votes, with bill sponsors and House leaders looking for one more supporter to put a bill over the top, will be rare.

“I think there will be less partisan brouhaha,” Stam said.

Voter ID

But the partisan divisions could be on display early in the session. A contentious bill requiring all voters to show identification when they go to the polls is expected to pop out of the box early. Last year, Perdue vetoed such a bill, and Tillis was not able to find enough House Democrats willing to vote for an override.

New Gov. Pat McCrory supports voter ID. He urged his backers to show photo identification when they went to the polls last year, even though the law does not require it.

In a meeting with McCrory a few days after Christmas, the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, asked McCrory not to begin his administration by signing a voter ID law.

Barber, who was arrested at the legislature during a 2011 protest over the education budget, said the NAACP has worked with Republican governors and presidents in the past and hopes to work with McCrory.

The state constitution acts as a check on legislative power, Barber said, and legislators will have to answer to voters in two years for whatever they do, he added.

State and federal courts have frozen or struck down GOP-sponsored laws in the past two years on issues such as new abortion restrictions, preschool eligibility and funding, and teacher dues collections.

Divisions, cooperation

This session, legislators are considering more reductions in environmental regulations, a broad rewrite of tax policy, and other issues that promise to highlight partisan divisions.

But Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, said veteran legislators are used to working across the aisle, and she expects bipartisan cooperation on a number of issues.

“There are going to be some things that people are going to work on together,” she said. But, she added, “it’s not going to be tax reform or a constitutional amendment on ‘right to work.’ ”

On the more divisive proposals, groups are paying attention to the legislature and preparing to raise public awareness of its actions, she said.

“Just because one party wins doesn’t meant everybody else goes into hibernation,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of anger.”

Bonner:919-829-4821

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