Morning Memo: Big predictions for the 2014 year in NC politics

Posted by John Frank on January 2, 2014 

As he does at the start of each year, News & Observer columnist Rob Christensen goes out on a limb to make political predictions for the year ahead. (Read more about his hits and misses from 2013 here.)

For 2014, the four-decade N.C. political watcher expects to see more big headlines, even after a tumultuous 2013.

Take a look at five of his top predictions and read more here:

• After taking a battering in the polls, the GOP-led legislature will move a few short steps toward the center for the election year. Among other things, they will pass a 2 percent pay raise for public school teachers.

• House Speaker Thom Tillis and Charlotte Pastor Mark Harris will emerge from a Republican primary on May 6 with neither receiving the necessary 40 percent to capture the nomination outright.

• Tillis will win the runoff, tentatively set for July 15. Tillis is not a beloved figure in the GOP, but he has most of the support of the party leadership, will be the best financed, and will look like the Republican’s best chance of knocking off Hagan.

• Calling the November Senate race is difficult. Hagan looks vulnerable, the new health care law is unpopular, and history is against the Democrats. But Hagan wins anyway, in part because the Democrats have the anger factor, which is a powerful force in politics. This year will be the Democrats’ tea party moment, just like 2010 was the Republicans’ tea party moment.

• Democrats will make only modest gains in the legislature because of the GOP’s advantages in redistricting and money. The Senate goes from 33-17 Republican to 29-21 Republican, and the House goes from 77-43 Republican to 66-52 Republican.

*** Stick with the theme, see five top stories you missed while you were gorging on ham and candy canes below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory did not release a public schedule for Thursday. And no legislative committees are meeting. But expect some news in the North Carolina U.S. Senate race later this morning.

TOP STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED --

1. ILLEGAL GAMBLING MONEY WENT TO TOP N.C. POLITICIANS: From AP -- A checking account used last year to make $235,000 in donations to the campaigns of dozens of North Carolina politicians contained the laundered proceeds of a criminal gambling enterprise, according to Oklahoma's top law enforcement official.

The political donations were drawn from one of several accounts tied to sweepstakes game provider Chase E. Burns of Anadarko, Okla., who in September pleaded no contest in Florida to two criminal counts of assisting in the operation of a lottery. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped 205 felony counts against Burns, including racketeering and money laundering charges. He is currently awaiting sentencing. Read more here.

2. DEMOCRATS SEE BETTER FORTUNES: From AP --North Carolina Democrats sapped of ruling power in North Carolina state government over the past three years are cautiously optimistic their fortunes will improve in 2014, thanks to what they describe as poor Republican policy decisions in Raleigh.

Party leaders and organizers say they're energized after a year in which legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by new Gov. Pat McCrory led to massive public protests and negative news media attention for the GOP. Read more here.

3. TAX, CAMPAIGN LAW CHANGES IN 2014: From AP -- More than 20 new laws taking effect Wednesday in North Carolina will lower income tax rates, relax some campaign finance rules and increase charges for electric vehicle owners.

Significant portions of the tax and elections overhaul bills approved by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory will be implemented starting with the new year.

The tax changes don't apply to 2013 individual income tax returns filed by millions early in the new year. But moving ahead the law consolidates three personal income tax rates of 6, 7 and 7.75 percent into one flat rate of 5.8 percent in 2014. Many deductions, exemptions and credits also are going away as the standard deductions for filers more than double. Read more here.

MORE ON CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAW CHANGES: “Very few people hit contribution limits as a general rule,” said Peter Quist, a research director at the National Institute for Money in State Politics. “What happens then by raising the contribution limits is you allow a handful of people to give a little more.” Read more here.

4. DAN FOREST LOOKS FOR MORE PROMINENT ROLE: ... After a year searching for his place in the conversation, Forest is beginning to emerge on his own.

He is expected to propose a multiyear plan in January to give teachers a huge salary boost. The same month, he will relaunch the eLearning Commission, started by Gov. Bev Perdue but largely dormant in recent years, and lead the newly charged Energy Policy Council.

In a recent interview, Forest made it clear education is at the top of his agenda. “There are so many missed opportunities in education,” he said from his office in the renovated Hawkins-Hartness House in Raleigh. “I think that lots of times policy-driven issues in education are two years at a time. They kind of come and go with elections and leadership changes and that sort of stuff, and we are here (with) a little bit more longevity.”

FOREST AND McCRORY: McCrory has not offered Forest a prominent place in his administration. “I probably had the expectation of the governor coming and saying, ‘Here, here’s a project, take this and run with it.’ That really hasn’t happened,” Forest said. “We meet every other week. Usually it’s on the phone. ... We’ll catch up, talk about what’s going on. Sometimes we talk politics, sometimes we talk policy and sometimes we talk small talk.

“We just don’t have a close relationship, but it’s a good relationship,” he said.

A McCrory spokesman said a closer relationship may develop in the next year. “We plan to use the lieutenant governor a lot more as he is a strong communicator who can talk about the challenges we face, and how we will continue to find solutions to overcome those challenges, just as we have done this first year,” said Ryan Tronovitch, the governor’s deputy communications director. Read more here.

5. IN MORE URBANIZED N.C., ANIMAL RIGHTS GROUPS, BIG AG CLASH: The gulf between (Farm Bureau's Larry) Wooten’s nostalgic view of rural North Carolina and a growing animal-welfare movement in a state increasingly removed from its agricultural past seems to be widening.

Traditional agricultural interests say they are trying to be responsible farmers in how they treat livestock and poultry, as well as how they treat the environment. Still, they see the Humane Society as public enemy No. 1, and have been girding for a fight for years. Read more here.

***SEE OTHER TOP STORIES WE MISSED? Send us a link. We'll feature more headlines folks missed during the holidays in future Memos. ***

MORE HEADLINES ---

SWEEPSTAKES CAFES FIGHT TO STAY OPEN: A year after the state Supreme Court upheld a North Carolina law banning sweepstakes cafes, some of the places where people play fast-moving computer games that mimic Vegas-style slots are still open for business.

Over the last year sweepstakes cafes have been shut down by police, and their owners and employees have been charged with violating the law. But some of those arrested have been acquitted of criminal charges. Read more here.

STATE PAYS THOUSANDS TO GUARD RIDE: More than two months after the N.C. State Fair ended and the midway was disassembled and trucked away, one ride still remains.

The Vortex, a ride known for its fast flips and wild, spinning turns, sits alone near Gate 5 off Youth Center Road. The N.C. State Fair has someone watching the ride 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because it figures prominently in a criminal case stemming from an accident that injured five people.

The garishly painted machine has taken up about 25 square yards of real estate at the fairgrounds since it came to a stop Oct. 24, then suddenly and without warning started up again. The five people who were injured included Anthony Gorham, Kisha Gorham and their 14-year-old son Justen Hunter. One of them remained comatose late last month, according to assistant district attorney Howard Cummings. Read more here.

QUICK HITS ---

Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill names his top races to watch in 2014. See them here.

Three local TV anchors depart. Read more here.

Dome's gift to readers -- Top quotes from 2013. Read them here.

The top 5 Dome stories from 2013, according to reader clicks. Read them here.

Opinion piece getting big clicks: Urgent wake up call from N.C. teachers. Read it here.

N.C. gay couple must file multiple tax returns. Read more here.

N.C. to D.C., one political staffer's journey. Read more here.

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