The Republican leadership that controls North Carolinas state government came in promising change.
Longtime observers of state government whove watched the muddled, comical and sometimes mean-spirited goings-on in the General Assembly say this session is different than any theyve seen. Its not a comment they make with admiration, though there is an element of awe over the sheer scope of the recklessness and political tone-deafness demonstrated this session.
The latest example, of course, was the state Senates abrupt move last week to use a bill on foreign law in family court as a vehicle for proposing sweeping new restrictions on abortion. The proposed changes are part of a national effort by pro-life forces to undermine a womans Constitutional right to an abortion. This time, theyre avoiding a challenge to the right itself and instead pushing to restrict the process with legal encumbrances ostensibly added for safety.
The Senates action appears to have caught House Speaker Thom Tillis and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by surprise. This session has become so unpredictable that even the GOPs top leaders are in the dark about whats happening.
Now the big questions focus on what will happen next. Tillis is preparing to run for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan. Can he afford to campaign as the House speaker who put through a bill that sharply limited access to abortion in North Carolina?
And should Tillis fail to stop the bill, what will the governor do? McCrory pledged during his 2012 campaign not to sign restrictive abortion legislation.
Meanwhile, with the abortion bill deepening rifts in the Republican ranks, can they pass a tax bill? Or will that centerpiece of the GOP takeover be a victim of infighting?
These questions illustrate the divided nature of this new majority. The party has become four kingdoms, leadership is breaking down and sudden legislative twists such as the abortion bill are the result.
Heres how the realms divide:
House Speaker Tillis quickly rose to power and hes already eyeing a place in the U.S. Senate. He further complicated the leadership situation by declaring he would serve only two terms as speaker. That rendered him an immediate lame duck and made it harder to control his caucus, a restive group full of first- and second-term legislators who know what they want to change, but know little about the give and take of lawmaking.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger is a lawyer and experienced legislator who came into the session respected for his friendly demeanor and his intellect, but has become stridently conservative. Berger also is weighing a run for U.S. Senate. That puts him at political odds with Tillis and further chills what had been a cool relationship with the speaker. Berger has tried to push through major tax cuts, but has been rebuffed by the House and, indirectly, by the governors office. All that may explain why he let the abortion bill go to a vote with virtually no public notice and at the political expense of Tillis and McCrory.
Art Pope wears the title of state budget director, but he directs more than that. He and his family are major financial contributors to General Assembly Republicans. Pope made the surprising move of proposing his own tax plan without the endorsement of the governor. If hes lobbying his own ideas, he can pressure GOP lawmakers to choose between the priorities of their caucus leadership and those of their political benefactor.
Finally, theres the governor, wherever he is. McCrorys leadership has been invisible. Hes declined to engage the Moral Monday protesters or to challenge the General Assemblys extreme measures. He gives the impression of a man passively following the General Assemblys actions rather than a governor leading his state.
With four kings, North Carolina lacks for one. The result is divided governance in which egos rather than the people are served.