From the start, a ‘breathtaking’ GOP agenda in legislature

jfrank@newsobserver.comJuly 27, 2013 

north carolina

Firmly in control: In their second session in control of the legislature, Senate leader Phil Berger, left, and House Speaker Thom Tillis pursued a more ambitious agenda. "Anyone who listened to what we said we intended to do should not be surprised," Berger says.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Six months ago, top Republican state lawmakers met with conservative allies to preview their strategy for the legislative session.

The party controlled the entire lawmaking process in North Carolina for the first time in more than a century, and top legislators made their ambitions clear. Big changes were coming.

The leader of a conservative political organization left the meeting calling the agenda “breathtaking.”

Now, two days after the session ended, the description seems like an understatement.

The Republican supermajority, backed by Gov. Pat McCrory, dramatically reshaped the North Carolina landscape, upending decades of settled law, cutting once-sacred institutions and redefining the state’s political vision. The moves represent a test of how a moderate, evenly divided state reacts to a deep-red governing class.

“If you put all those (changes) together, they are sharp turns in a different direction, and the direction is more conservative, more business-friendly,” said Ran Coble, executive director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Once the new laws take effect, the new North Carolina will require photo identification at the polls, levy a flat income tax that reduces rates for many, make it harder to get an abortion, offer less generous unemployment benefits, require cursive education in schools, give low-income families vouchers for private schools, require fewer government regulations on businesses, resume executions for capital crimes and allow concealed handguns in bars and restaurants.

“Other states have done pieces of this but not all at the same time,” said John Hood, a conservative writer at the John Locke Foundation, putting the state in the same category as Florida and Texas. “North Carolina has enacted major initiatives in all these areas in one year – that just strikes me as phenomenal.”

A ‘different ballgame’

Republicans began the change two years ago when they took control of the legislature for the first time in modern history. They passed restrictions on abortions, limited civil lawsuits, loosened gun rules and began to erode long-protected Democratic programs such as early childhood education.

But this year, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger took it a step further, advancing more significant changes with a fervor that surprised even some Republican allies and generated a vocal outcry from critics.

The difference this year, in substance and tone, grew from the 2012 elections, which installed a Republican governor and legislative supermajorities. The GOP holds a 77-43 advantage in the House and a 33-17 Senate edge.

In the prior session, Republican lawmakers pushed to require photo identification at the polls, but Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed it. This year, the GOP pushed a more sweeping bill that will make voting more difficult for hundreds of thousands, and the governor is expected to sign it.

It’s a similar story on the Racial Justice Act, which allowed convicted killers to be spared the death penalty if they could prove racial bias in their cases. Republican lawmakers weakened it last year but repealed it completely this session with McCrory’s approval.

Even conservative measures deemed too extreme a year ago found new life. A bill to prohibit Islamic Shariah law in North Carolina courts that died in committee in the previous session is now headed to the governor’s desk.

“This is a session in which the conservatives really flexed their muscles in all ways,” said David McLennan, a William Peace University political science professor who tracks the legislature. “They did a lot to deal with Gov. Perdue last session, but this time ... they were more strident because they had a governor who reflected their own party, and they had bigger numbers.”

Rep. Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican, said working with a Republican administration made a huge difference, even if not all sides agreed at all times. He noted that he pushed a bill to revamp the state’s Commerce Department in the prior session that went nowhere. This year, a similar effort is included in the state budget, with backing from the governor.

“It’s a completely different ballgame,” Murry said.

Moving more quickly

With two years of leading the legislature, Republicans moved more confidently this session.

“Being in the second term of being in the majority, I think we had a better sense of some of the things that needed to be done,” said Berger, an Eden Republican and the Senate president pro tem. “So it may seem that a lot more detailed stuff was worked on.”

The Senate drove the agenda, establishing a more conservative stance than the House and governor on most major bills, such as taxes, abortion, guns and energy exploration. It crafted a detailed agenda at the start of the session, consolidated to a one-pager with boxes next to the items. Berger’s office checked them off, getting nearly every one.

But Republican leaders downplayed the notion that they made big changes, saying the work was a continuation of what they promised since taking control.

“We said that we intended to reform the tax code; we’ve done that,” Berger said. “We said we intended to continue the fiscal reforms that we had started; we’ve continued to do that. We said we would continue the initiatives we started in education; we’ve done that.

“I think anyone who listened to what we said we intended to do should not be surprised.”

Many economists don’t consider the new tax structure reform because it extended many loopholes valued by special interests and didn’t broaden the tax base. The new law creates a tax code where a taxpayer earning $40,000 a year will pay the same income tax rate, 5.75 percent, as someone making $1 million in 2015.

The tax plan led to more spending cuts in the $20.6 billion state budget, even though the state’s improving economy gave lawmakers more money to allocate. The reductions in public education, from pre-kindergarten to universities, came as lawmakers earmarked money for private school vouchers for the first time and allowed charter schools broader ability to expand.

Democrats on the sideline

For most of the session, Democrats appeared to be spectators.

The weekly “Moral Monday” demonstrations – headlined by the more than 900 arrests – helped advance their voice but did little to slow the Republican agenda.

Unlike the previous session, when Republicans needed five Democrats to vote with them to reach a veto-proof majority, there was no need for cooperation this year. Democrats felt the tone change as Republicans continuously blocked their amendments and limited floor debates, taking away the power of the microphone.

Rep. Garland Pierce, the Legislative Black Caucus chairman, said Republicans advanced an agenda that hurt the poor and working class. He highlighted the end of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps low-income working families with children, and the decision not to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of uninsured people near the poverty line.

“This is a targeted group of legislation (they) are pushing that will ... cause pain and hurt on these people,” the Wagram Democrat said.

The supermajorities and Republican governor changed the dynamic entirely, Pierce argued. “With Perdue, we could hold some of the water back,” he said. “The dam was breaking, of course, but we were able to keep our fingers in the dike. But if (they) have two houses and a mansion, it’s hard to stop them.”

The polarization concerns Rep. Darren Jackson, a Raleigh Democrat. He said it changes the state’s image to the outside world.

“I think North Carolina has had a moderate brand to companies, education, everything,” he said. “I think as we are getting more partisan, that’s going to present a problem when you are trying to attract new business, when you are trying to keep the brightest minds in the state.”

House Republicans didn’t hide their mindset.

“I would just remind you of one thing,” House Republican leader Edgar Starnes said when Democrats complained about Republican appointments. “The Republicans won the election. We are in control.”

But the majority party argues it sent a different message. Rep. Tim Moffitt, an Asheville Republican, said it told “the employers in our state that we are open for business.”

“I think that tax reform really puts us on the map as a destination state, not only for people that are seeking to retire here but also businesses who are seeking to locate here,” he said.

As for the criticism about partisanship, Senate Republican leader Harry Brown said more work needs to done. Republicans will return next year with another ambitious plan.

“The status quo is easy,” he said. “But when you make changes, it’s difficult, and a lot of people don’t like change.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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