Under the Dome

Morning Memo: Law and order in North Carolina politics

Welcome to the Law & Order edition. The North Carolina political battle continues to enter the courtroom, with critics of the Republican legislature using lawsuits to challenge an agenda they can’t stop.

The newest lawsuit fights the private school voucher law. The “Moral Monday” trials continue. And attorneys are in federal court today pressing their case to block the state’s new election law.

On the other side, a Democratic lawmaker is arrested on felony tax charges and resigns. And the hearing for a Republican lawmaker convicted on federal charges is postponed.

***Get a full roundup on the charges and cases below in the Dome Morning Memo, along with more #NCSEN news.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory will visit the Regional Transportation Alliance’s annual meeting at noon in Cary and then visit the Department of Labor open house at 2:30 p.m. and then light the Capitol Christmas Tree in festivities that begin at 5 p.m. (Tree lighting is at 6 p.m.)

A joint legislative oversight committee on public safety will talk about the state’s SBI crime lab at its 1 p.m. meeting at the legislative office building.

POLITICO ON THE NC SENATE RACE: In 2014, voters will have a chance to decide which of those two governing visions they prefer — Barack Obama’s Washington or one-party GOP rule in Raleigh — in one of the most competitive, consequential Senate races in the country.

“This race is not about the president,” Hagan said in an interview, twice refusing to say whether she approves of Obama’s job performance.

But Tillis, a 53-year-old former IBM executive who has the strong backing of the GOP establishment but is by no means the prohibitive front-runner, is betting that Southern Democrats who once thrived here are dying breeds because of the liberal policies coming out of Washington. He is defiant about North Carolina’s hard-right turn, calling it a “reform agenda unlike any other state in the United States.”

TILLIS ON HIS CRITICS: “I think for the most part, what I see from the folks who are opposing our agenda is whining coming from losers,” he said in an interview in his Raleigh office. “They lost, they don’t like it, and they are going to try to do everything they can to, I think, cast doubt on things that I think are wise and that the average citizen when they know what we’re doing, I think, like it.” Read more here.

TAKEAWAYS FROM THE STORY: Even though the story doesn't break new ground, it's a good summation of the race a year out. And two quick thoughts come to mind:

1. Hagan wants to make the election a referendum on the polarizing Republican legislature -- and Tillis is ready to play ball. He's not downplaying the swift GOP agenda.

2. Tillis is running on his experience and accomplishments. But it could feed into his GOP rivals talk about him being a political insider in what they see as an anti-incumbent election year.

RELATED -- Karl Rove raises campaign cash for Tillis, then uses Wall Street Journal column to hit Hagan. The headline -- Democrats face a day of Obamacare reckoning. He writes: “North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan used to say, "If you've got health insurance in our country, you keep it." Running in one of two states Mr. Obama lost in 2012 after winning in 2008, Ms. Hagan now sounds like she's a criminal investigator: "We need to figure out why this happened." Her Republican opponent will solve the mystery: "This happened" because of Kay Hagan's vote.” Read more here.

HAGAN PUSHES TO RESTORE UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: With the 2014 looming, Kay Hagan is trying to undo something GOP rival Thom Tillis helped put in place. More from Washington -- The federal long-term unemployment program would extend to North Carolina once again if Congress approves a provision that Sen. Kay Hagan inserted into a bill, but the Senate likely won’t act on the measure until January.

Hagan’s provision would reinstate North Carolina’s eligibility for the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. The state became ineligible for the federal money over the summer when the General Assembly reduced the amount of state benefits and the length of time that unemployed people can receive them. Read more here.

AN EARLY LOOK AT RICHARD BURR’S RACE IN 2016: Courtesy of Roll Call. Read it here.

HEALTH INSURANCE ENROLLMENT UP -- BUT STILL A FRACTION OF TOTAL: Nearly 9,000 people in North Carolina have signed up for individual insurance through the glitch-plagued healthcare.gov website, federal officials said Wednesday.

The enrollment numbers are an improvement over October’s total of about 1,600. But they represent a mere fraction of the roughly 1 million North Carolinians who were expected to shop for individual insurance under the new federal mandate. Read more here.


DEMOCRATIC LAWMAKER ARRESTED, THEN RESIGNS: State Rep. Deb McManus, a first-term Democrat and former longtime member of the Chatham County school board, was arrested on felony tax charges Wednesday.

McManus, 56, of Siler City resigned from her House seat several hours after posting a $150,000 bond so she could be released from the Wake County jail, where she had been booked on the charges.

She was charged with three counts of embezzlement of state money related to more than $47,000 in state individual income tax withheld between January 2011 and July of this year at her husband’s medical office, Carolina Family Practice in Siler City. “It is with deep sadness that I have decided to resign from the House of Representatives effective today in order to focus on a personal matter that has arisen,” McManus wrote in a letter delivered to House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office. Read more here.

REPUBLICANS -- The state GOP jumped on the chance to highlight possible Democratic wrongdoing. But the same day came a reminder of its own problems: Rep. Stephen LaRoque's court hearing moved to February. Read more here.

THE CRUX OF THE SCHOOL VOUCHER LAWSUIT: Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said similar lawsuits against voucher programs have been successful in some states and unsuccessful in others. But, he said, the language in North Carolina’s constitution is clear that public funds “are to be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”

The word “exclusively” is very unusual in a state constitution, Craige said. “We’re going to ask [the court] to declare that ‘exclusively’ means exclusively.”

Craige said the bottom line is that taxpayer funds are being redirected into private schools in violation of the constitution. “We have no problem with private schools,” Craige said. “We have no problem with home schools. Wonderful. We have a vibrant system of home schools in North Carolina. That’s terrific. But we don’t ask taxpayers to fund it.”

GOP REACTION: Senate Leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican, issued a joint statement Wednesday criticizing the lawsuit. They called the sponsors “liberal groups” who want to keep students in failing schools.

“Not only are these left-wing interest groups fighting every attempt to improve public education, they now want to trap underprivileged and disabled children in low-performing schools where they will continue to fall behind their peers,” the statement said. “Their shameful and defeatist mission will only hurt these students and our state.” Read more here.

PROTESTER USES TRIAL TO MAKE POINT ABOUT MEDICAID: On Wednesday, the physician from UNC Hospitals got choked up on a witness stand in Wake County District Court while describing his motives for joining one of the demonstrations this summer outside the General Assembly chambers.

The legislature had just rejected the federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid as part of the new federal health care law, and van der Horst said he was frustrated that he had not been able to present his concerns to any of the Republican leaders guiding that decision. ...

BUT ... After two days of testimony in November and a full day Wednesday, van der Horst and another defendant, Tye Hunter, were found guilty of second-degree trespass but not guilty of violating N.C. State Legislative Building rules. Read more here.

CONSERVATION GROUPS CONTINUE BRIDGE FIGHT: Lawyers for two conservation groups say in a new appellate court brief that the state’s plan to replace the Bonner Bridge violates federal laws that should protect Outer Banks wildlife. The state should let the public decide how North Carolina will secure its fragile highway all the way from Bodie Island to Rodanthe, the brief said.

The groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, argue that state transportation officials had the right idea in 2003 when they leaned toward building a 17-mile bridge to carry N.C. 12 across Oregon Inlet and out into Pamlico Sound, bypassing the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Read more here.


JESSE HELMS AND NELSON MANDELA: Columnist Barry Saunders looks at former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and Republican reaction to Mandela: "You know how Don Quixote was always ready to march off to battle injustice, tyrants and “the unbeatable foe”? Jesse opposed lifting sanctions, opposed Mandela and turned his back when Mandela visited the U.S. Capitol in 1994. In short, Jesse seemed always to be battling alongside the tyrants and against the already vanquished and oppressed." Read more here.


REBRANDING: The Commerce overhaul isn't a "reorganization," it's a "redesign." Read more here.

ALEC: Duke Energy won't say whether it's an ALEC member. Read more here.

ANALYSIS: Seats that could flip in 2014, from Real Clear Politics. Read more here.

CONSULTANTS HIRED: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Flynn has hired Strategic Red Group to run his campaign. It is a “majority female-owned political consulting firm based in North Carolina specializing in all aspects of campaign management and consulting.”

DECORATIONS AT THE LEGISLATIVE BUILDING: George Hall in the Legislative Services Office sent lawmakers a notice inviting them to see the Christmas decorations at the legislative building. Republican state Rep. John Blust replied by email: “Thank you for calling them ‘Christmas decorations’ and not ‘winter holiday decorations.’”