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A Referendum on State Policy
By Becki Gray

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Oct. 31st, 2014

RALEIGH ó The election of 2014 will have widespread impacts. It will determine who will control the legislative branch, directly affect policy decisions (whether to repeal, replace, or renew earlier reforms), and set the stage of the 2016 election and beyond.

I am talking, of course, about the election for the North Carolina General Assembly.

So much ink, bandwidth, and money have focused on North Carolinaís U.S. Senate race, but the implications of this election on state policies have been overlooked.

And thatís a shame.

While as the incumbent U.S. senator, Democrat Kay Hagan has had to defend President Obamaís policies, Thom Tillis as the speaker of the N.C. House has had to defend the policies of the Republican-led General Assembly and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.

Since Republicans took control of the legislative branch in 2011, they have implemented a very aggressive reform agenda. They have reformed our tax system, rolled back regulations, strengthened infrastructure, raised teacher pay, expanded school choice, and restored integrity to our elections. It has been transformational and has taken strong, bold leadership.

The U.S. Senate race between Hagan and Tillis has become a referendum on Republican-led policies. How will the results affect further reforms in North Carolina?

Not only Tillis but also every Republican legislative candidate has had to defend the policies. Republican candidates have been attacked for raising teacher pay, reducing tax rates across the board, exploring new energy sources, and refusing to expand a broken Medicaid program.

In spite of signs of a recovering economy, more people getting back to work, and more opportunities for North Carolina students to excel, the attacks have been relentless and often misleading.

I believe the policies are good for the state and its people. We are starting to see signs that they are working. But change is hard, and these changes have been difficult to accomplish. Policymakers have struggled to find a balance between being aggressive enough to make a difference and slow enough to enact deliberate change.

What will it take to keep the momentum going?

Republicans currently hold 33 of the 50 state Senate seats and 77 of the 120 House seats, a veto-proof majority in both chambers. Analysis from both sides of the aisle suggests Republicans could lose some seats (although far fewer than the 22-seat-loss average for a first-term governorís midterm election).

I believe if Republicans lose no more than eight seats in the House and four in the Senate, they can consider it a green light from voters to continue their momentum.

If Republicans lose their veto-proof majority in either chamber, McCrory will gain negotiating power with the General Assembly. The governor has largely gotten much of what he wants, but there have been some differences.

Without a veto-proof majority, McCrory will become an even bigger player when thereís an impasse. His policies, priorities, and approach to reforms will gain importance.

This referendum on General Assembly policies also will have a huge influence on the selection of the next speaker of the House. Will the caucus choose a leader to continue an aggressive reform agenda, one committed to maintaining the momentum, or someone who wants to let the dust settle a bit?

The direction of the General Assembly depends not only on numbers but also on the ideology of its members. Depending on the electionís outcome, the body could become more conservative, especially if the Republicans pick up new seats. It is less likely it will become more liberal. If the Democratic caucus becomes more conservative, it increases the likelihood of bipartisanship and could pull the body more to the middle.

Just as this yearís election has become a referendum on recent Republican leadership, the 2016 election will continue that theme. McCrory is likely to face Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper. All legislative and Council of State seats will be up for election. And the policies of McCrory and the 2015-16 General Assembly again will be the subject of the elections.

But of course, the big showdown will be in 2020. The 2021 legislature will redraw all the congressional and legislative districts, setting the stage (unless the process changes) for control of state government in the following decade.

What direction will North Carolina take? Will it be toward limited government, free markets, and personal responsibility ó or for big government, regulations, and more entitlements?

Will the failed policies of 140 years be resurrected, or will the aggressive reforms of the 2010s prevail? The referendum starts Nov 4.

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.


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