Big top in the Capitol
As the 2015 session began, one of the three ringmasters of past shows, Thom Tillis, was off performing at a different venue. His replacement as speaker of the N.C. House, Rep. Tim Moore of Cleveland County, joined Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County and Gov. Pat McCrory at the center of attention in Raleigh. In dramatic fashion, Moore announced his key committee assignments, demoting some longtime members and elevating others to positions of prominence. At the same time, he signaled a desire to produce a less death-defying session — one devoted to consolidating and building on legislative accomplishments of the last four years rather than taking on a host of new challenges and controversies.
It remains to be seen if Moore will get his wish. North Carolina is a large state with a rapidly growing population. It is one of the nation’s most competitive political battlegrounds. Like it or not, North Carolina is among the nation’s important pacesetters in public policy, with South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and states farther afield looking to catch up with the state’s recent innovations in tax reform, regulatory relief, education reform and transportation finance.
Here are five headline acts that I’ll be watching during the 2015 legislative circus:
• The Knife Jugglers. During the first half of the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state’s General Fund revenue ran about $200 million lower than projected. Fiscal analysts for the legislature and governor attribute much of the difference to changes in income tax withholding prompted by the 2013 tax reform bill. If they are right, then businesses and households may end up owing more than they expected when they complete their 2014 tax returns, boosting revenue collections in the spring and reducing or eliminating the gap. If not, House and Senate appropriations committees will have to fashion another round of budget cuts, some potentially unpopular. The other option, rescinding the tax cuts of 2013 or raising other taxes to offset them, would be even more unpopular — particularly among Republican lawmakers and their supporters.
• The High Wire. Incumbent Republican McCrory will almost certainly face Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in the 2016 gubernatorial race. While McCrory’s approval ratings are on the rise, he and his team expect the campaign to be highly competitive. To position himself, McCrory believes he must separate from the General Assembly on some issues — Medicaid expansion is a possibility — while avoiding a knock-down, drag-out fight with Republican leaders that might split his base and dampen enthusiasm among stalwart GOP activists and donors. Talk about a balancing act.
• The Elephant Parade. During previous sessions, the McCrory administration repeatedly found itself allied with Tillis and House Republicans against Berger and Senate Republicans in intra-party disputes about tax legislation, Medicaid reform and other issues. While some of the disagreements reflected philosophical differences, personal tensions and even animosities also bubbled to the surface. All three camps are making concerted efforts to express their disagreements more respectfully and less publicly. We’ll soon see how well the pachyderms stay in line.
• The Trapeze Artists. Education is the largest recipient of state funds and always accounts for a big chunk of legislative activity and political debate. In 2014, McCrory and the legislature enacted the initial stage of a two-year plan to raise base pay for North Carolina educators, with an emphasis on early-career teachers. Although fiscal pressures may make it tricky, you can count on them to complete the maneuver in 2015. How large a pay hike will be extended to veteran teachers, and whether it will be accompanied by changes in the state’s testing and accountability system, are unclear.
• The Fire Breathers. The Moral Monday protest movement continues, undaunted by its scant success at the polls last year. Despite attempts to spin things otherwise, the enterprise is largely intended to mobilize left-leaning activists, to earn media attention during legislative sessions and to turn out voters for Democratic candidates at election time. While partially successful in advancing these goals, the Moral Monday protests also helped turn out resentful conservatives in the 2014 elections. The open question is whether the NAACP and other groups propelling the movement will craft a less extreme message, intended to persuade, or push the envelope even further with an eye to the 2016 cycle.
Regarding his choices for committee chairs and assignments, Moore explained that he made decisions “with great scrutiny” to ensure “a productive House session.” If he has his way, you’ll see no disaster at the North Carolina General Assembly this year. At worst, any false steps will topple the legislator in question into a carefully prepared net. If you’re a spectator, you may find this less than thrilling. For those out on the floor, however, it’ll be a relief.