Rob Christensen

Christensen: Will NC’s ‘conservative revolution’ continue?

The N.C. legislature will return to work for a long session next week.
The N.C. legislature will return to work for a long session next week. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who until recently was state House speaker, termed the past four years in Raleigh as “the conservative revolution.”

With the legislature set to convene in Raleigh this week, the question is whether the broad-scale conservative changes in taxes, education, voting, health and social policy that have shifted North Carolina policy to the right will continue apace, or whether the GOP legislature will begin to throttle back.

It is a question of keen interest to GOP Gov. Pat McCrory as he seeks to position himself for re-election in 2016 as a pragmatic, business-oriented conservative more in the mold of the past two Republican governors – Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser – a positioning that could be influenced by the actions of this year’s legislature.

It is also a question of how one interprets the results of last November’s mid-term elections. Was it a public validation of conservative policies? Or did Tar Heel Republicans perform more poorly than did GOP candidates elsewhere in the country?

North Carolina is widely regarded as a purple state – one that is equally divided between self-identified Republicans and Democrats – and has a history of very close, bitterly contested elections. Asked by pollsters to place themselves on an ideological scale, North Carolinians consistently say they are among the most moderate in the nation.

In other words, North Carolina is very close to being Main Street America.

That was apparent in last year’s Senate race, in which Tillis defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in a Senate race that was the most expensive in American history.

Hagan made Tillis’ legislative record a major issue in the race. If Tillis had lost, Democrats would have trumpeted that as a referendum on the Republican legislative agenda. But while there was a national landslide for Republicans, Tillis won by a margin of 1.64 percentage points in a state where President Barack Obama was unpopular and where no Democratic senator had won re-election since 1968.

“You can make a strong argument that the General Assembly should tack to the center a little bit because Tillis ran pretty far behind similar Republican candidates across the country,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

Yet there were few indications of political blowback against the Republican legislature in November, when all 170 seats were up for re-election.

The Republicans lost three seats in the House but gained one in the Senate, maintaining large, veto-proof majorities. Still, North Carolina was the only state in the South where Democrats picked up seats in a Republican-controlled chamber, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant and blogger in Raleigh.

Taylor said the legislature will also be looking at retaining power. The electorate in the 2016 election is likely to look far more Democratic than the one in 2014, based on historic trends. That means that more Republicans in swing districts could be vulnerable in two years and might be reluctant to vote for polarizing legislation.

Less to do

North Carolina Republicans have already attracted national attention in conservative circles with their policy changes, Taylor said, and there may now be less on their plate.

“It also comes down to what there is left to do,” Taylor said. “The policies have moved in a conservative direction over the last four years, particularly over the last two years at the state level. There might not be as much to do now.”

Since 2011, the legislature has passed the largest tax cuts in state history, slashed state employment benefits, eliminated numerous education programs, placed new restrictions on abortion clinics, put new restrictions on voting and eliminated tax credits for the working poor. It also abolished the state inheritance tax, which previously had applied to estates above $5 million, blocked expansion of Medicaid health insurance for the poor, and started a school voucher program for low-income children.

McCrory has been signaling his intentions to move more to the center. But he has signed most of the bills passed by a more ideological legislature with closer ties to the tea party, conservative evangelicals, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national group that drafts model legislation designed to advance free-market ideas, limited government and pro-business policies.

In recent weeks, McCrory has talked about the possibility of the state expanding Medicaid, remained largely silent about the recent same-sex marriage court rulings, and his administration issued new rules that should allow the state’s abortion clinics to stay open.

Berger not budging

But whether the legislature will move to the center with him is another question.

The leader of the conservative revolution is Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden, whose position is strengthened in the Senate.

The likely new House Speaker, Tim Moore of Kings Mountain, is probably to the right of Tillis, who is a Chamber of Commerce Republican. But while he is more conservative than either Tillis or McCrory, it is not clear that Moore is as conservative as Berger. But both men have said they oppose at least one of McCrory’s moves to the midde – expanding Medicaid.

Moore is not a politician who is easy to pigeonhole. For years, he has been a member of the Cleveland County NAACP and he is a grass-roots politician who works both white and black neighborhoods.

Conservative agenda lives

John Davis, a veteran North Carolina political analyst who produces the John Davis Political Report, said there is still a long wish list for conservatives.

“Most Republicans would say, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet,’ ” Davis said.

Among the tax ideas still being talked about in GOP circles are reducing or eliminating the capital gains tax, ending corporate taxes and even eliminating income taxes and replacing them with a consumption tax. Some would like to see a constitutional amendment called a Taxpayers Bill of Rights that would tie future revenue increases to inflation and population growth.

There are those who want to end tax benefits for solar energy, and encourage more charter schools and more vouchers to allow parents to send their children to private schools.

Conservatives are also sharpening their budget-cutting knives. The Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy organization with ties to former state budget director Art Pope, recently highlighted as its taxpayer’s “Waste of the Week” the North Carolina Zoo, noting that the zoo was a nonessential service that gets $10 million a year in state funding.

Davis said the Republicans must be careful of the sort of overreach that may have hurt Democrats under Obama. Davis argues that there was disconnect between Obama’s ideological agenda and what the public wanted, and that North Carolina Republicans could face the same trouble.

“The biggest danger for Republicans is that they think they have a mandate to do all things conservative when they are still governing in a state that is the most perfectly balanced state in America,” Davis said. “If they are smart, they will play it astutely and be incremental in their conservative accomplishments.”

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