Thirty minutes before the new legislative session began, Rep. Tim Moore stood outside his second-floor office, posing for photos with fellow Republican legislators and their children.
“I’d appreciate your vote” for speaker, he told one House member with a laugh. A small-town attorney from Kings Mountain, he already was guaranteed one of North Carolina’s most powerful posts. Wednesday’s unanimous vote was a mere formality as Democrats joined Republicans to elect Moore as the leader of the state House.
Moore stressed bipartisan cooperation in his first speech, given without notes moments after he took the gavel from his predecessor, new U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Moore suggested lawmakers could add funding for after-school programs – a cause both parties likely would embrace.
“The answers are never Republican or Democrat, they’re North Carolina answers,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of the time, we’re generally in agreement. It’s that 15 percent that gets talked about more.”
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Moore rose to the speaker’s post after more than a decade in the General Assembly. For the past four years, he worked closely with the leadership of the GOP-dominated legislature.
By Wednesday afternoon, Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger were offering glimpses of the upcoming session, which will stretch into summer.
They said they would focus on jobs, the economy, continued reform of state government and education.
Raising teacher pay
They said they would continue efforts to increase teacher pay, saying they are committed to raising starting pay for beginning school teachers by 6 percent, to $35,000. It’s now $33,000. Last year, lawmakers increased the pay by about 7 percent, and it was a major piece of their campaigns in November.
“I would like to see us do more for veteran teachers,” Moore said, adding that his two sons attend public schools. “The whole idea of public education is not just a political issue for me.”
They signaled little interest in providing more money for jobs incentives right away, adding uncertainty to one of Gov. Pat McCrory’s priorities as the session begins. They said continued efforts to make tax and regulatory changes will remain a bigger focus.
Democrats, who are outnumbered in both legislative chambers, offered a more muted agenda, focusing on a desire to press for ethical reforms amid questions about financial and ethics disclosure forms filed by McCrory, a Republican.
After organizing and taking their oaths Wednesday, lawmakers are taking a two-week break. They will return Jan. 28. Some fundraisers are planned in the meantime.
As Moore wound down his first day as speaker, he praised the family-oriented atmosphere of the opening ceremonies. Nearly everyone, it seemed, had brought along children and grandchildren. One conference room was reserved for children and toys.
“I think it starts us off setting the right tone,” he told reporters. “It’s not about us individually as legislators, but it’s about families and the people of this great state.
“I believe we’re going to have a very productive session this year.”
In suggesting action on after-school programs, Moore mentioned more public funding could go to the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs.
“A lot of our youth, it’s that period between the end of school and when a parent or caregiver picks them up that a lot of bad things can happen and a lot of good things can happen,” he said.
‘More to be done’
Over in the Senate Berger was elected to a third term as Senate leader.
Berger told senators the state was in better economic shape than it was when Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2011. He promised to continue on a path of conservative policies that he said will put more money into the pockets of businesses and the state’s residents.
He said voters had delivered a clear message by keeping a majority of Republicans in the Senate, and that legislators should continue what they have worked on in past years.
“Make no mistake,” Berger said. “There is more to be done.”