Commentary

Christensen: GOP settling down despite spate of off-the-wall bills

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2013 

There were signs that the Republican legislative leadership last week was moving to rein in the red-hots.

The popular narrative in recent days is the legislature had gone off the deep end. That is based on a spate of legislation declaring that North Carolina has a right to declare a state religion; require divorcing couples to wait two years; place new regulations on campus coed dorms; and take away tax deductions for parents whose kids vote at college, among other things.

But here is a different view. I think things are beginning to settle down.

Consider:

• House Republicans rolled out their voter ID bill, which was less restrictive than the one vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue two years ago. Democrats and others will still hate it, but it will take some of the air out of the opposition. Because of some of the provisions, it is far less likely that grandma, students or poor people won’t be able to vote compared to the earlier version. The GOP had the votes to adopt any voter ID bill they wanted. But House Republicans decided against the hard-line approach.

• Two Rowan County lawmakers drew national ridicule when they introduced a resolution that allowed the state to declare an official religion – saying the state is not subject to the First Amendment prohibition on creating laws on an official religion. The “Defense of Religion of Act,” was unconstitutional on its face. Can you imagine a state considering a resolution saying the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to their state? House Speaker Thom Tillis quickly put out the word that this resolution would be deep-sixed.

• The House is expected this week to propose a new state law that would grant driving privileges to residents living in the country illegally, but would also adopt Arizona-type enforcement authorizing police to check the immigration status of people they question for other suspected offenses. This approach would put North Carolina in the moderate camp, and it would help employers who depend on the immigrant labor pool.

Backlash avoidance

Make no mistake about it. This Republican legislature is the most conservative legislature North Carolina has seen in generations. And that is not likely to change.

But there are some indications that lawmakers are worried about over-reaching.

One of the lessons of the 2008 election, in which Democrats won large victories, is that the Democrats over-reached when President Barack Obama proposed his national health care plan, his cap-and-trade legislation, and a series of other bills that angered many critics.

Two years later, there was a strong conservative reaction, which saw not only the election of a Republican U.S. House in Washington, but the election a Republican legislature in Raleigh.

Just as you could see Republican anger building toward the 2010 elections, you can see the Democratic anger building toward the 2014 election. If that were to continue it could have an impact on the 2014 U.S. Senate race, in which both Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger are weighing a challenge against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

While the Republicans would seem to have a lock on the legislature because of gerrymandering, they could lose seats in 2014 if there is a wave of voter discontent – and if the state’s high unemployment continues to drag on.

Red-hot safe zones

One of the few drawbacks for Republicans in designing safe GOP districts is that it leads to the election of some of the red hots – people who are more comfortable venting on talk-radio programs than they are in actually governing.

That is how you get off-the-wall legislation that is both embarrassing and takes attention away from the more serious and substantive Republican efforts.

I don’t expect to see the GOP legislature to be any less right-leaning. But if last week is any indication, there may be signs that it could become more conservative – in the sense of moving more cautiously.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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