A slim margin of victory by a new Democratic governor followed by weeks of post-election uncertainty. Special legislative sessions to weaken the governor’s powers. A flurry of lawsuits.
The stage is set for a monumental showdown between Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled General Assembly when it convenes Wednesday.
But so far, Cooper and GOP legislative leaders have been publicly expressing optimism that they can work together on common goals.
How long the positive attitudes last remains to be seen.
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“We’re going to try hard to work with this legislature,” Cooper said in an interview in his office Friday. “We’ve never been divided, politically, as we are right now, both as a state and as a country. When people see the partisan bickering they’re reminded of a campaign that they didn’t like, and they want us to roll up our sleeves and try to find consensus.”
The new governor acknowledged there will be disagreements, most likely over his commitment to repealing House Bill 2, the law rolling back anti-discrimination protections, and his insistence on expanding Medicaid insurance coverage for several hundred thousand needy North Carolinians.
We hope the Senate’s relationship with the governor will be positive, and it will be if he respects that our job is to pass laws fulfilling the promises we made voters and his job is to execute those laws.
Senate Leader Phil Berger
Cooper said he has been meeting with legislative leaders to pave the way for the job ahead, including breakfast last week with House Speaker Tim Moore, who invited him to deliver the annual state-of-the-state address when he is ready. Moore has already predicted a good working relationship.
Sen. Bill Rabon, a four-term Republican from Southport who is the new Senate rules chairman, an influential position that helps direct the flow of legislation, struck a similarly optimistic note.
“I believe once we get in session and we all get to know each other a little better that we will find quite a bit of common ground,” said Rabon, a Republican from Southport. “The common welfare is something that we all want. We all want good education. We all want good infrastructure. We all want health care. It’s just a matter of how much and how we achieve what we want to do. Everyone’s going to have to compromise, and we always do.”
Senate leader Phil Berger has been more measured.
“We hope the Senate’s relationship with the governor will be positive, and it will be if he respects that our job is to pass laws fulfilling the promises we made voters and his job is to execute those laws,” Berger said in a statement his office provided Friday.
Protective of their authority
Although the Republicans have supermajorities that allow them to override vetoes, several legislators see the possibility of avoiding the entrenched partisanship of Gov. Bev Perdue’s final two years in office, when the Democratic governor vetoed 19 bills sent to her desk by the GOP legislature.
“I’m very hopeful, actually,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat from Knightdale who is the new Democratic leader in the House. “I was very surprised when I heard the week of the third and fourth special sessions (in December) that while passing deals stripping the incoming governor of power, he was sitting down with Berger and Moore and trying to fix House Bill 2.
“I took that as a good sign. The first step in changing the tone is talking and communication.”
I took that as a good sign. The first step in changing the tone is talking and communication.
House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson
Both sides say even though lawsuits have been filed over the legislature’s actions diminishing the governor’s authority to make appointments and transferring power from the state Board of Education to the state superintendent of schools, it isn’t personal and won’t complicate their relationships.
“It seems like it’s not just partisan politics, but also institutional power and authority that both sides are seeking to protect,” Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor, said of the turn to the courts.
“It feels like Gov. Cooper is willing to return fire to the Republicans as easily as they do, and both sides are willing to let third parties, especially the courts, resolve the disputes,” Bitzer said.
More money to work with
Cooper said in the interview that his proposed budget will likely go to the General Assembly within a month, and it will reflect his immediate goals including increasing teacher salaries and more spending on early-childhood and mental-health programs.
“You’re going to see a good, strong budget with a lot of investments in our people,” Cooper said.
In his first public speeches, the governor has said his guiding principle will be to push for a state that is better educated, healthier and more prosperous.
With plentiful revenue coming into the state, Cooper said, there’s an opportunity to put money into community colleges and universities so there is a trained workforce that will help attract better-paying jobs. Republicans caution that there is more revenue coming in because of belt-tightening they have made over the past six years, leading to lower taxes, job growth, improved teacher pay and a healthy emergency reserve fund.
“Let me be clear: We will not, under any circumstances, return to the failed tax and spend policies of the past that gave us the mess we inherited in 2011,” Berger said in remarks at the ceremonial opening of the session earlier this month. “We’ll continue to look for ways to reduce the tax burden on families, small businesses, and other job creators, helping them keep more of their own money.”
Cooper said he anticipates conflict over how to spend state money, as he opposes continuing to cut corporate taxes and personal income tax reductions that benefit the wealthy. Instead, he said he will push for putting more money in education.
Points of conflict
The real fight will come over HB2 and Medicaid expansion. Cooper says he is sure there are enough votes for repeal of HB2 if Berger and Moore would allow it to come to the full Senate and House for votes, rather than trying to first secure a majority of votes among House Republicans and among Senate Republicans before bringing it to the floor.
Efforts to repeal it in December collapsed amid mutual distrust between Republican legislators and the city of Charlotte. The legislature passed HB2 early last year to overturn a Charlotte non-discrimination ordinance that allowed people to use the public restrooms of the gender with which they identify rather than their gender at birth. The bill, which then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law, led to protests that cost the state’s economy and damaged its image. The controversy became a centerpiece of Cooper’s campaign against McCrory.
“But it has to be a repeal of House Bill 2,” Cooper said. “It can’t be repeal plus something that won’t work. If we can find something that works – and I mean by works something that eliminates discrimination and brings the businesses and sports back – then I’m all for it. What we know will work is repeal.”
Such a version might include longer sentences for certain crimes, he said.
As for his fight to expand Medicaid, which Republicans have opposed because of long-running cost overruns and other problems with the program, Cooper said there are ways to craft a North Carolina version that would be palatable to those who have concerns about it. Turning to hospitals to fund the costs of expansion, as they would benefit financially from it, would make it unnecessary to raise state taxes to pay for it, he says.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed
State lawmakers return Wednesday to start their work for 2017, their first session sharing Raleigh with the Cooper administration. The News & Observer takes a look at four people and five issues that will matter this year. Get to know Dale Folwell, Darren Jackson, Bill Rabon and Sarah Stevens. Find out what the General Assembly could consider on taxes, election law, teacher and principal pay, House Bill 2 and Hurricane Matthew relief. And learn more about how the legislative process works.