Teachers are likely to get raises this year, and so could state workers in certain jobs. Taxpayers might get a break, and industry might get some regulatory relief.
It seems everyone has something riding on the fate of House Bill 2, the law that has drawn international attention to the debate over discrimination protections for transgender people.
But when the General Assembly’s 2016 session begins Monday, nobody has more at stake than Gov. Pat McCrory.
Much of what happens on Jones Street during the next few weeks will shape McCrory’s re-election bid against Democratic challenger Attorney General Roy Cooper. While most legislators are running this fall in districts drawn to keep them safe, the governor has to appeal to voters everywhere in an increasingly diverse state.
That tension often has led to a tug-of-war with lawmakers from McCrory’s own party since he took office in 2013. At times it has undermined his image as a centrist Republican who can stand up to a more conservative legislature.
“The short session poses a lot of problems for Gov. McCrory’s re-election,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. “On major issues like revising HB2, increasing teacher pay, or increasing state worker salaries, the governor may get little from the Republican leadership in the General Assembly.”
Mostly, McCrory would like the din over HB2 to subside so he can talk about an improving economy, education spending and his success in persuading voters in March to approve a $2 billion infrastructure bond issue. Democrats, meanwhile, intend to keep the LGBT discrimination issue in the forefront, while arguing that McCrory has ignored the middle class and followed the legislature too far to the right on social issues.
McCrory’s wish list
To the extent that he can, McCrory will try to spend the short session drafting a script for the November campaign. He outlined some of his goals at a news conference Friday, and he plans to give lawmakers his full budget proposal Wednesday.
▪ Education: He proposes to increase average teacher pay to more than $50,000 through an average 5 percent pay increase. He also would give an average 3.5 percent bonus for teachers and principals, with the higher amounts for veteran teachers.
▪ Mental health: McCrory’s budget will include a plan to build a mental health and substance-abuse infrastructure, which would include transitional housing, case management, children’s crisis centers and specialty courts.
▪ Targeted raises: They would go to state law enforcement, to prison guards and to prosecutors and public defenders in criminal cases. All state employees and school support staff would receive a one-time bonus, averaging 3 percent.
▪ Infrastructure: A repairs and renovation fund of $155 million would be used to maintain aging roads and buildings.
Recent estimates of a $237 million surplus give the governor reason to think he can achieve much of what he wants.
The governor clearly needs a win on something major like HB2 or teacher pay, or he may see his poll numbers slide further.
David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College
The governor’s campaign also says his relationship with legislative leaders has improved, and campaign officials hope that works to his advantage. But that’s not to say there won’t be conflicts.
“Sen. (Phil) Berger has shown no interest in revisiting HB2 and has pushed back on McCrory’s proposal for teacher pay,” McLennan said. “The governor clearly needs a win on something major like HB2 or teacher pay, or he may see his poll numbers slide further.”
Berger, the Senate leader, was noncommittal in his response to the governor’s plan Friday, saying it “sets the right tone” for controlling government spending, and that he hopes to “build on our shared priorities.”
Meanwhile, a poll came out last week, taken April 10-15, showing McCrory falling behind Cooper by six points, the first time they have not been within the margin of error of each other. McCrory’s job approval rating had dropped to 37 percent.
HB2 not going away
And no one really expects HB2 to fade away by November.
In response to the new law and opposition from scores of major companies, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue have been diverted from North Carolina through canceled business commitments and events. The reaction seemed to surprise the governor, who issued an executive order to clarify the new law, saying he would like to see one part of it repealed – the part that now bars discrimination claims from state courts.
After his appearance on “Meet the Press” on April 17, a panel of national journalists dissected McCrory’s role in trying to salvage the law against mounting criticism. The most controversial parts of House Bill 2 require that people use restrooms assigned to their birth sex, not their gender identity, and prevent cities and counties from expanding LGBT rights beyond the state’s policy. Many Republicans would like to get past that debate.
“I don’t want to argue about bathroom bills,” Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk radio host whose show airs nationally, said on the same show. “I want to argue about ISIS and Libya going downhill. This is not our terrain. We should not fight there.”
But the McCrory campaign knows that fight isn’t about to end.
“We fully anticipate the left to try and keep bathroom politics at the forefront of the election,” Chris LaCivita, the governor’s campaign strategist, said during an interview Thursday. “As far as Gov. McCrory, he’s focused on implementing a long-term vision for the state focused on continued job growth and a better educational foundation.”
LaCivita said McCrory will emphasize his first-term accomplishments, which outweigh any losses due to HB2.
“Coming into a short session with money to spend, that’s always a good place to start, as opposed to coming into a short session with cuts to be made,” LaCivita said. “From a management standpoint, you’re not going to have a budget surplus unless there is financial stewardship.”
What’s a short session?
In even-numbered years, the N.C. General Assembly meets for what’s known as the “short session.”
The primary goal of a short session is to revise the two-year budget that was approved during the previous year’s “long session.” Legislators typically consider other matters, too, but they can’t file legislation on any topic they want: A set of rules dictates the types of bills allowed during the short session.
Among the legislation up for consideration: Bills that passed one chamber last year, “local” bills that only affect individual communities and bills that order a legislative study.
After last year’s budget talks dragged on for months, it’s unclear exactly how short the short session will be, but Senate leader Phil Berger offered a prediction.
“My hope,” he said Wednesday, “is that we will finish in time for everyone to enjoy fireworks that don’t involve this building.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell
McCrory’s mental health initiative
Legislators will get a package of initiatives that grew out of a mental health and drug abuse treatment task force Gov. Pat McCrory appointed.
McCrory has proposed $30 million in his budget for mental health and drug treatment items, including emergency housing for people discharged from hospitals, crisis centers for children and medication-assisted treatment of addictions.
A legislative committee wants to change the law to allow for increased use of naloxone, an antidote to heroin and painkiller overdoses. Heroin use is on the rise in the state.
The local mental health agencies were hoping the legislature would not take the $152 million cut planned for them next year. Legislators said they took a $110 million reduction this year and planned to take more next year because the local agencies had plenty of reserves. It appears, from lawmaker assessments in recent health and human services committee meetings, that they are not inclined to change their minds.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner
Get the news
Full coverage of the legislative session, every day, will be at nando.com/statepol.
Our collected coverage of House Bill 2, beginning with its enactment in March, is at nando.com/hb2coverage.
Up-to-the-minute news on state politics and government is always at nando.com/dome.
Fact checks are at politifactnc.com.
Follow the N&O political team on Twitter at @underthedome.
Contact your lawmakers
Gov. Pat McCrory: Go to governor.nc.gov/contact.