Carolina Journal News Reports
Incoming Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (top) and House Speaker Thom Tillis pledge a unified front as the GOP takes charge of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.
RALEIGH — A paradox could dominate the new session of the General Assembly — more cooperation between the legislature’s two chambers, yet starker division between the political parties over key issues.
The result: One of the briefest, but most contentious, legislative sessions in recent years.
Republican leaders have pledged a unified front on budgeting and redistricting. Their goal is to wrap up the session, which convenes today at noon, by the close of the state’s fiscal year June 30. At the same time, they’ve alluded to potential battles with Democrats on several fiscal and social issues, among them a push to generate additional revenue by legalizing video poker and having the state run it — an idea that GOP leaders are wary of.
N.C. State University political science professor Andrew Taylor said the divided-government scenario — with Republicans controlling the legislature and Democrats commanding the governor’s office — is new, so anything could happen.
“At the moment it’s hunky dory, and everybody’s talking to each other, and everybody says they’re willing to listen to the other side,” Taylor said. “But it will be interesting to see what happens, particularly going through the budget process.”
The new GOP majority is the first to control both chambers since 1870. The party has a 68-52 majority in the House and a 31-19 majority in the Senate.
Although overcoming an estimated $3.7 billion budget hole, and drawing new district lines for the 2012 election, will overshadow the session, the GOP has planned an aggressive lineup of bills for the first week.
The top issues: lifting the cap on charter schools, requiring citizens to present a valid ID card before voting, and exempting North Carolina from individual mandates in new federal health care reforms.
“I think in the first week or so, you’ll see movement, discussion, probably votes, on all of those issues,” said presumptive Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, at a press conference Jan. 24.
Berger said that House and Senate leaders would be more united on the budget compared to past Democratic majorities, which often bickered for months over spending priorities. This year, the House must pass its budget first, then the Senate.
“The difference that we’ll see is the cooperation that will occur at the subcommittee level between the House and the Senate, in terms of where we will see the budget going as far as levels of spending and particular issues that are dealt with,” Berger said. “And I think that’s primarily because, hopefully, the House members and the Senate members are more philosophically aligned than maybe has been in the past.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Carolina Journal at his legislative offices, presumptive House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius pledged similar cooperation during the budget-writing process.
“We are inviting the Senate to be actively engaged in all of our deliberations,” Tillis said. “We think that by doing that we can minimize the amount of time that will be required once the Senate ultimately gets it, and virtually eliminate the need for conference.”
Rules revamp, revenue sources
Leaders in both chambers also are weighing the benefits of revamping rules governing how legislators conduct business. For instance, House Republicans will propose rule changes to cap the number of bills an individual legislator can introduce to 10.
“What we’re going to eliminate is the so-called ‘run-on bills,’ bills that people know they’re never going to get passed but put it out their so they can say they filed or sponsored it,” Tillis said.
One flashpoint of controversy could be video poker. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has telegraphed that she’s open to the idea of legalizing video poker as a way to generate revenue for the budget, but Republicans are concerned.
“The idea of throwing up video poker or some other proposal to so-call ‘bridge the gap’ is one that I don’t know that I agree with the underlying premise of,” Berger said.
Both Perdue and Republican leaders have said that tax increases are off the table, although Perdue has been less adamant than Republicans in opposing renewal of an expiring 1-cent temporary tax passed by the General Assembly in 2009. Allowing the tax to sunset, as intended, adds more than $1 billion to the budget hole, but neither party appears in the mood to stomach the political consequences of tax hikes.
“Continuation of the so-called ‘temporary taxes’ is not something that will be part of our proposal,” Berger said. “I’ve said it this way: We intend to keep the promise the Democrats made two years ago when they said that they were temporary taxes.”
Local, social issues
Several constitutional amendments will be introduced, and possibly voted on, related to eminent domain abuse, forced annexation, and traditional marriage. A number of pro-life bills, long bottled up in committee, could also get a hearing and a vote.
“There will be bills introduced by members that deal with protection of traditional marriage, that deal with some abortion issues,” Berger said. “We do not intend to focus on those issues until we have addressed the issue that we believe that voters elected Republicans to deal with, and that is the very serious fiscal issues that are facing the state.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.