After eight years of battle that bloodied Republicans and Democrats alike, and at times the state’s reputation, North Carolina’s legislature is about to traverse a new political landscape.
It is the first time that Republicans have not had enough members in both chambers to override vetoes since 2013. That shift in power makes Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper more of a factor in what laws are enacted and forces Republicans to negotiate with Democrats, who have felt ignored since losing their long-held majority.
Will the high-strung rhetoric, barrage of lawsuits and partisan tug-of-war over power continue? Or will weary lawmakers set aside their swords?
Real consequences are at stake behind the political posturing: Will the legislature expand Medicaid coverage, as 36 states and Washington, D.C., have done, to help more of the state’s residents who can’t afford health care? Will there be room in the budget to do that and also increase teacher pay?
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Will they find a better way to divide a map of the state’s legislators and members of Congress to avoid lopsided representation? Are there any divisive social issues that haven’t yet been exploited?
The answers to these questions will play into the state and national campaigns that will consume politics next year, including Cooper’s re-election bid against anticipated Republican opponent Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
The battle with the legislature has been pitched since Cooper took office in 2017. He has vetoed 28 bills, and seen 23 of his vetoes overridden. He has filed a flurry of lawsuits against legislation the Republicans have passed, including over its challenges to his authority to appoint the majority of members to boards and commissions.
“I am hoping for productivity but expect, based on the past couple of years and the tenor of both NC and national politics, that the GOP will continue its adversarial push against Governor Cooper,” Elizabeth Kusko, an assistant professor of political science at Peace College in Raleigh, emailed. “With 2020 not that far away, it makes strategic sense that the GOP would back Cooper into any corner that they can.”
It’s about the budget
The 2019 session will be about putting together a two-year budget, with the intent to finish that by the end of the fiscal year in June. If disagreements go beyond that deadline, there is a mechanism in place to prevent state government from running out of money and shutting down.
The general election in November left 29 Republican and 21 Democratic senators; 65 Republican and 55 Democratic representatives. A three-fifths margin of members voting is required to override a veto.
The lawmakers met earlier this month to elect leaders, and they return on Wednesday.
Senate leader Phil Berger made the power shift a central part of his organizational-day remarks earlier this month. He acknowledged the challenge but placed some of the burden on Democrats. He explained in an interview in his office on Tuesday.
“I think it involves more inclusion, as far as both parties are concerned,” Berger said. “It requires us as the majority to listen probably more than maybe we had to in the past. But I think it also creates a shift as far as the responsibility of the minority party in terms of the suggestions that they make, because it’s got to be things that actually work, that the numbers pan out.
“I think both sides are aware of that and both sides are, at least initially, committed to trying to work in that new environment.”
Republicans in the legislature like to say most of the bills they pass are bipartisan, but the ones that get the most attention are the most controversial because they are usually the most significant. Emergency hurricane relief, passed unanimously last fall in record time, was easy. Voter identification has less room for compromise.
“There are some things that are tied to the politics of the day that tend to get folks moving into their corners,” Berger said.
Expanding health insurance?
Medicaid expansion is one of those controversial topics. North Carolina has for years rejected the federal funding that would pay for most of it, saying it would cause budget deficits. But the GOP stance on Medicaid expansion has softened since the party took control of the legislature in 2011 and rejected it.
House Speaker Tim Moore this month said House members are talking about a bill that includes a version of Medicaid expansion.
Cooper has vowed to push for expansion, and it’s a priority with the General Assembly’s Democrats. Health-access advocates are saying this could be the year that it happens.
But no one expects it to be a shoo-in.
“I’ve said all along I have a hard time reconciling the idea of Medicaid expansion with the fiscal realities of adopting a budget,” Berger said. “I have yet to see a proposal that does not create the kinds of problems with North Carolina’s budget that actually crowds out other spending.”
Legislators made promises to the electorate and have a responsibility to increase spending on education and infrastructure, he said. Berger is wary of proposals that look sound initially but create deficits a few years down the road.
“If I see a proposal that solves those out-year fiscal issues, I certainly am willing to look at it,” he said. “I think our members are willing to look at it. We will see how that debate goes as we go through the session.”
Cooper points to the economic advantages of expansion in other states. His administration has analyzed the number of jobs that every county in North Carolina would benefit from, and estimates the federal contribution to the state would be at $4 billion a year.
It would insure around 339,000 people in the state if all those qualified signed up, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation estimate.
“We will have failed the people of North Carolina if we don’t expand access to health care,” Cooper said in an interview Friday at the governor’s mansion in Raleigh. “That’s what families talk about at the dinner table and breakfast table. I hope we can do that this session.”
Cooper says the new political landscape was shaped by voters’ fatigue with partisan bickering. They want to see officeholders working together and compromising when they can while standing up for their beliefs, Cooper said. That means Republicans and Democrats have to do their part in striking this new balance, he said.
“They’re going to have to realize that they can’t just pass anything that they want,” he said. “We’re going to have to get more involved in the legislative process in weighing in on what we think is good for North Carolina.
Cooper said passing a budget requires striking a balance between both parties’ agendas, even if it requires he sign off on a budget that includes provisions he doesn’t like.
“We’re not going to get walked over,” Cooper said. “We’re not going to let the people of North Carolina get walked on. So, yeah, we’ll stand up for what we believe but at the same time you’ve got to be willing to give some in order to get a step forward. “... There’s more opportunity to do that kind of thing and I’m looking forward to it.”
Republicans confront the new frontier riding on a platform of economic successes, for which they feel like they don’t receive enough credit. The state’s unemployment rate is below the national average at 3.6 percent; there is a hefty revenue surplus of $188 million.
The revenue forecast helps legislative budget-writers come up with spending targets and sets the framework for how much the budget is loaded with money and policy decisions. With that surplus, they have more to work with.
The GOP agenda over the past eight years has been tax cuts and deregulation to help businesses — often at the expense of workers, the environment and public health and safety, according to Democrats.
Dee Stewart, a longtime Republican political consultant based in Raleigh, said in a phone interview he hopes the governor will climb aboard the economic train.
“Hopefully, the governor will follow suit and utilize his newfound strength to do good and follow Republican legislative leads: taxes, regulations, wasteful spending, keeping in place policies that helped foster one of the greatest economic expansions in the history of this state.”
Stewart says there will always be partisan politics where one side doesn’t want to cede ground to the other. But, like Berger, he says he’s optimistic.
“I suspect at first there will be some growing pains as everyone sort of becomes acclimated to the new realities of the policymaking process with the current composition of the chambers of the General Assembly,” Stewart said. “Once everyone settles in to those realities there will probably be more discussions between the legislature and the governor. There will be more of an effort to come together.”
Can they stick together?
Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant, says Republicans are sounding more conciliatory than they have in years.
“The reality is all the sudden the executive branch has more power than it’s had in a long time,” Mills said. “These guys overrode Republican vetoes, maybe not as frequently as Democrats’, but they overrode them at will, just about. That’s not going to happen.”
The real test of strength will be how well the minority party forms a bloc.
“A lot is going to turn on can Democrats see if they can hold their caucus together,” Mills said. “If they can’t uphold a veto it doesn’t matter.”