Republicans in control: Where do things stand?

At halfway point, GOP lawmaking slows

jfrank@newsobserver.comApril 13, 2013 

  • What’s passed

    Legislators are introducing bills like mad – House members saw 170 new bills in just one day last week – but only 33 filed so far this session have been pushed all the way through and have become official.

    Among the first new laws were cuts to unemployment benefits, a decision not to add more people to Medicaid as allowed under the new federal health care law and a proposal to allow the state’s earned income tax credit, a break for low-income workers, to expire.

    The legislature moved on Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign promise to promote technical education. The state has a new law that will have high school diplomas come with designations that the holder is prepared for college, a career, or both.

    What’s dead

    • An effort to close one or more of the UNC system campuses – at least for now.

    • The Defense of Religion Act, which would have made it possible to create an official state religion.

    •  The N.C. Equal Pay Act, which says employers can’t use gender to determine pay. Introduced by Wake Democrat Deborah Ross on Tuesday, it was immediately referred to the Rules Committee, where bills go to die.

    Don’t that beat all?

    Lawmakers worry about the darndest things. How else to explain Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, introducing a bill to allow school buses to go 55 mph because he’s tired of being stuck behind them? Others include:

    • The effort to amend the state’s indecent exposure law to be sure it includes “the nipple, or any portion of the areola, or the female breast.”

    • Rep. Robert Brawley’s effort to allow lobbyists to once again freely give gifts to lawmakers, without fear of reporting requirements.

    • The opossum right-to-work bill, which legalized Brasstown’s annual opossum drop on New Year’s Eve.

    • The bill from two lawyers, who also happen to be state senators, to require couples to wait two years rather than one year before they can divorce.

    Fed fight

    From its core to its fringe, the Republican caucus has set a tone for thumbing its nose at Washington this session.

    Right out of the gate, they rejected federal funding for health care and unemployment insurance. As a matter of principle, conservative lawmakers are looking for ways to wrest from the federal government more control over the state’s destiny.

    Sprouting up beneath those policy goals have been a slew of strongly worded bills and resolutions calling all patriots to action as if there were an impending invasion from Washington.Freshman Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, has cranked out quite a few pieces of legislation that reflect his interests, even if they won’t necessarily become law, including a gun bill to protect citizens against “violent sociopaths,” and another that directs the state attorney general to sue to determine whether the president’s war powers are constitutional. He also introduced a resolution asking the federal government to repeal any law that requires a state to comply or face penalties.

  • By the Numbers

    1,666 Number of bills and resolutions filed through Friday.

    942 Number of bills and resolutions filed by House.

    17 Number approved by House.

    724 Number filed by Senate.

    16 Number approved by Senate.

    33 Number that have passed both chambers.

    21 Bills signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

— As a legislative clerk read 170 new bills to a near-empty chamber Thursday, the House deadline for filing most legislation, Rep. Jeff Collins kept his seat. Too much work to do, he said. Too little time.

“It seems much more hectic to me this time,” the two-term Republican from Rocky Mount said.

The N.C. General Assembly started fast and furious in January as Republicans, bolstered by big majorities and equal ambition, pushed major agenda items into law, such as changes to the state’s unemployment system and limits on the federal health care law.

Now at the halfway mark, momentum has slowed.

Of the 1,660 bills filed since the session’s start, only 33 have passed both chambers. And the biggest promises – overhauling the tax system, cutting government regulations, restraining spending, requiring voter ID at the polls and expanding school choice – have yet to progress.

Republicans talked about introducing a voter ID measure in the first week. But facing significant pressure, lawmakers are still crafting the bill’s language as the session enters week 12. Likewise, cutting income taxes was a top priority, but the effort is proving more difficult than expected.

Other efforts that are designed to help create jobs – such as energy bills and legislation to streamline regulation of businesses – are also moving slowly.

Local issues such as the Dorothea Dix property lease and statewide matters including design standards for homes, charter school bills and efforts to weaken gun laws diverted lawmakers for weeks. Education proposals were introduced in both chambers, but peripheral issues caused a distraction, including bills to allow a state-sanctioned religion and to add the word “nipple” to the state’s indecent exposure law.

“They are dealing with so much,” said David McLennan, a William Peace University political science professor who watches the legislature closely. “So that’s why I think some the big-ticket items haven’t been introduced or filed yet – because they are taking on everything.”

Republican Rep. Jason Saine acknowledged that the headline-grabbing legislation is hurting the GOP agenda and its reputation. He said his constituents are giving him an earful back home in Lincolnton on the weekends.

“You have a lot of competing ideas ... when you have whopping majorities,” he said. “One thing about the quick pace is a lot of things get filed that haven’t been sorted out.”

House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, a Hickory Republican, said the session is moving as expected.

“I think the General Assembly has been on a pretty slow and deliberate pace,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything too terribly controversial yet.”

‘Busy, loud and messy’

Outside the changes to unemployment benefits and rejecting Medicaid expansion, most of the approved legislation represents small tweaks to existing laws or consensus items. Among them: a “good Samaritan law” to prohibit prosecution for those seeking medical help for drug overdose victims; a measure to toughen penalties and access for protesters at military funerals; an act to allow surety bonds instead of liens for aircraft storage; and a bill to designate high school diplomas as job- or career-ready.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville said it’s difficult to judge the session with taxes and the state budget still to come. But, he said, “I can tell you on the warm-up bills we’ve been pretty draconian.”

Nesbitt referenced the broader themes that have emerged this session, such as pushing back against the federal government, upending longstanding government institutions, intervening in local matters and imposing a solid conservative viewpoint.

With so much left on the table, it’s setting up a chaotic sprint to the finish, which is expected in June.

“The next half of legislative term will be busy, loud and messy,” McLennan predicted.

How the House and Senate work together could determine how messy it gets. Some push and pull between the chambers is normal, but lawmakers say they are noticing more tension this session.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, the No. 2 Senate Republican, loudly voiced his displeasure at the House for changing his bill to replace all state board and commission members, and House members are complaining that the Senate is ignoring their bills.

How the relationship progresses will help define the session, said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political expert.

“Last session they had a common enemy with Gov. (Bev) Perdue,” he said. “Now, the question is how well they will play with each other without a common enemy. Both are trying to establish their pre-eminence over one another.”

GOP leaders downplay the talk of tension and whether it will affect the agenda in the final weeks.

More hearings on taxes and voter ID are expected in the next two weeks. And the Senate will unveil its budget in early May.

From his chair on the House floor, Collins said it’s a waiting game.

“I don’t think we’ll know whether we are successful until we are done, which is a little disconcerting,” he said. “But it takes time.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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