In the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Kay Hagan is attacking Republican Thom Tillis’ four-year tenure as state House speaker, while Tillis is criticizing Hagan’s votes as a first-term senator in Washington.
The jabs – backed by millions of dollars in television ads – are meant to draw distinctions and contrast their respective records for voters.
A better measure is a less noticed one: the 2007-2008 legislative session when both were state lawmakers voting on the same bills.
That legislative session stands as a mirror image of today’s political situation, where most of the issues are still relevant but the power structure is reversed.
Hagan, then a state senator, supported a bill to allow same-day voter registration at early voting sites. Tillis, a state House member, opposed it. Tillis voted against a bill to provide up to $60 million to help keep two major tire companies in the state. Hagan supported it. And Hagan supported a second-year budget bill that increased the earned income tax credit and provided 3 percent teacher raises. Tillis opposed it.
“The Hagan-Tillis differences in 2007-08 seem similar to today’s differences,” said David McLennan, a political analyst and a professor at Meredith College who reviewed the session’s votes.
“The comparison shows how both candidates for the U.S. Senate seat have remained pretty consistent, with Hagan favoring more money to education and government services and Tillis wanting less,” he said. “It also demonstrates that Hagan has consistently supported progressive ideas around voting and campaigns, whereas Tills has favored conservative principles.”
Of the 12 major bills that received statewide attention that session, as tracked by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, Hagan and Tillis disagreed on half.
It’s unlikely Hagan and Tillis interacted much, if at all, those years. Back then, Hagan held a prominent position as a state budget writer who sat on the front row in her final legislative term. She announced after the 2007 legislative session she would challenge then-U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole for the seat in 2008, a move that elevated her stature even higher.
Tillis was a first-term lawmaker in the minority party, relegated to the back row in the House, seat 118 of 120. But even then he was seen as a rising star in the Republican caucus and moved to a top post as whip the following session.
The session that brought them together started under a black cloud after former House Speaker Jim Black pleaded guilty to a federal public corruption charge and tougher ethics reforms remained a top issue. A bill to address the situation won unanimous approval in the House and Senate in August 2007. “I thought of the 2007 session as restoring public confidence in the process,” recalled Susan Valauri, then-president of the state lobbyists association.
Hagan and Tillis aligned on three other bills that received overwhelming votes:
• Increased penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders
• A mandate that private health insurers cover certain mental illnesses and set minimum benefit levels;
• The creation of a health insurance risk pool for residents who otherwise couldn’t afford coverage.
Tillis also bucked many in his party to side with Hagan and Democrats on a bill that required North Carolina power companies meet renewable energy benchmarks.
The two most prominent points where they diverged were in the two state budget bills Hagan helped craft as a budget writer in 2007 and as a senior budget adviser in 2008.
The $20.7 billion spending plan approved by lawmakers in 2007 made permanent a temporary quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax, raising that tax to 4.25 percent. The budget also gave counties the option through referendum to increase the local sales tax by one-quarter cent or charge a 0.4 percent transfer tax on real estates sales.
It also cut taxes in two places. It lowered the top-level income tax rate for the wealthy from 8 percent to 7.75 percent and created an earned income tax credit for working low-income earners.
In other places, the budget gave school teachers and university faculty 5 percent pay raises and state employees a 4 percent salary hike; put $50 million over two years toward a cancer research center at UNC-Chapel Hill; put $37.5 million toward reducing class sizes; and added $56 million for a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4 year olds.
At the time, Hagan touted the money for the UNC system, saying: “If we don’t educate our kids, we’re not only going to lose jobs to other states, the U.S. is going to lose its work force to other countries.”
But Tillis blasted the real estate transfer tax. The tax “is going to kick these people when they’re down,” he said during the budget debate.
The vote split along partisan lines with the Senate voting 31-19 and the House 65-53 to send it to then-Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.
In 2008, the bill increased spending to $21.4 billion, authorizing $857 million in borrowing to cover the cost of state construction projects; repealing the state gift tax and increasing the EITC tax break; and once again increasing teacher and state employee pay while putting another $30 million in the pre-kindegarten program.
Most Republicans in the House supported the budget but Tillis voted against.
Issues still relevant
Two sessions after Hagan left the statehouse, Republicans took control of the House and Senate and began to undo much of what Democrats approved in the 2007-2008 session.
One of the first bills Republicans pushed in 2011 repealed the real estate transfer tax. The GOP also let the earned income tax credit expire as planned and reduced eligibility for the pre-K program. An elections bill ended same-day voter registration and required a voter ID at the polls. In 2013, Republicans ended public financing for some statewide elected offices, a measure approved in the 2007 session.
Other issues from the past session also remain relevant in the current U.S. Senate race.
Earlier in the campaign, at a Republican primary debate, Tillis said he supported a repeal of the 2007 renewable energy requirements. The legislation, however, died in the House this session.
The Tillis campaign recently criticized Hagan’s “dismal record on coal ash” citing her vote in favor of the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007. Environmentalists cheered the legislation as a major victory, but Tillis’ campaign criticized the bill because it continued to allow the disposal of coal ash in unlined landfills.
What Tillis’ campaign didn’t mention is that he voted in favor of the bill on the preliminary second reading before he changed his mind and voted no on the final vote. His campaign didn’t return repeated messages this week to discuss his voting record.
The latest TV ad in the Senate race focuses on how Tillis and GOP legislative leaders put a 7 percent average pay hike for teachers in the budget bill. Hagan counters by touting the sustained increases to teacher pay, such as the ones in the 2007 and 2008 budgets, during her tenure in the state Senate.
Likewise, Hagan’s key role in the budget process is giving Tillis fodder to attack her for overspending and increasing taxes. And Hagan is criticizing Tillis for favoring wealthy taxpayers in the 2013 tax overhaul and allowing the elimination of the tax break for the working poor approved in 2007.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College who reviewed the 2007-2008 session’s record, said it “seems to be right out of what both parties have been fighting for the past few years.”
Elsewhere in the campaign, Tillis has emphasized his efforts to compensate people sterilized under the state’s former eugenics program, a point that contrasts with Hagan’s record. A 2007 bill to provide $50,000 payments to victims died in the Senate budget committee, where Hagan was a co-chairwoman. Hagan’s campaign didn’t return a message seeking further information about the bill.
The debate about whether to give private company taxpayer-funded incentives also remains in the spotlight with the possibility lawmakers may return again this year to address it.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is pushing a bill, supported by Tillis, to create a $20 million cash incentive program to lure companies to North Carolina and add more money to existing incentive programs. The House blocked the bill at the end of the legislative session. It’s unclear why Tillis opposed the Democrats’ incentive package in 2007.
This issue, as with the others, shows the contrast and what’s changed since Tillis and Hagan served in the statehouse together.
“Back in 2007-2008, Democrats got their version,” Bitzer said, “and this past session Republicans got their version – granted, both are polar opposites of the other.”
Staff researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.