The wild and wooly days of having control of both houses of the General Assembly gave Republicans lawmakers a heady experience in recent sessions. They flexed their muscle in passing laws deregulating industry, cutting taxes for business and the wealthy and tossing in a constitutional amendment against gay marriage for good measure.
So what happens now that House Speaker Thom Tillis is going to the U.S. Senate? It’s easy to say, “not much,” given that the GOP will, after the recent elections, still run things with overwhelming majorities and a sense of being affirmed by a statewide vote.
In terms of turning the state to the right, Republican lawmakers couldn’t do much more. In the last session, they acted like they were on a tear to complete their agenda out of fear that they’d eventually be out of power again, maybe sooner than later. Despite some tight legislative elections, however, the GOP remains firmly in charge.
In the upcoming session, the smart strategy would be for Republicans to take the sharp edges off what they’ve done. They could start with a better pay raise structure for teachers, one that would give more to the veteran teachers who got a pittance in the last round of raises, which were mostly aimed at younger teachers.
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Republicans, some of them anyway, appear to be leaning toward an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the disabled and the poor. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of covering newly-eligible individuals through 2016 and 90 percent of the cost thereafter. By holding out, North Carolina will miss a year or two of full federal funding.
Republicans previously rejected the idea, a gesture which was a rebuke to President Obama. That stand, however, means the state has forgone billions of dollars in federal funding and put a strain on hospital budgets. That loss, along with reductions in unemployment benefits, didn’t play well with the public. GOP leaders, including a new House speaker yet to be chosen, have a chance to do some constructive things by expanding Medicaid and reversing course on unemployment benefits. They also could re-examine the deregulation actions they took regarding oversight of industry.
At the center of the agenda-building will be Phil Berger, president pro tem of the state Senate, who drove much of the conservative agenda in the last session. The Eden Republican will set the tone. One question is whether he will calm that tone with a gubernatorial election and a presidential election coming in 2016 that will present a broader and more diverse electorate than the midterm electorate.
No one expects the Republicans to back away from their conservative principles.They see themselves as elected to institute changes that would put North Carolina more in line with other states in the Deep South.
That’s not a good thing, as North Carolinians always have been proud of their image as a progressive state. But GOP leaders, if they’re looking to maintain their power for the long term, surely will recognize that most people, even in a conservative state, view themselves as in the political middle, not on either extreme. The party that wishes to stay in control would be wise to adopt that same course.
Republicans who are likely be in the leadership in 2015 should be wary of overreach. They should persuade the more radical GOP lawmakers that the wise course is to avoid the polarizing actions of the last session and concentrate instead on simply governing from the center.