RALEIGH Republicans grasped historic dominance at the statehouse Wednesday, starting the legislative session with a supermajority in the House and Senate, even while expressing interest in compromising on a political flashpoint.
GOP leaders are softening their stance on legislation to require voters to show a photo identification card at the polls after seeing a new analysis from state election officials showing that it may hinder nearly one in 10 voters.
Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis said they favor allowing voters to show other forms of identification that don’t include a photo, such as a registration card or other government documents. “I would still like a photo on it, but I would also be willing to accept other options,” McCrory said. “I’ll let the legislature work to develop those bills. I expect a voter ID bill to be passed in the very near future.”
The governor’s comments came as he visited the Legislative Building on the opening day of the two-year session. McCrory’s two most recent Democratic predecessors rarely ventured to the legislature, but McCrory said he will become a frequent presence as he forges a closer relationship with lawmakers, who return Jan. 30 to consider legislation.
“I did it for two reasons,” he told reporters. “One is to show respect for the legislature, and also to build a relationship with members of the legislature because this is going to have to be a team effort to fix some of the problems in the state.”
The shift on a voter ID bill is a significant development on a major campaign promise Republicans made after Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed a photo ID requirement in 2011. Tillis vowed to make it one of the first bills approved this legislative session, and McCrory pledged to sign it.
Conservative activists overwhelming favor such a measure to guard against voter fraud, while Democrats warn that it would disenfranchise people, particularly minorities and the elderly, two points confirmed in the state’s analysis.
Tillis said the numbers released by the State Board of Elections – showing that as many as 613,000 registered voters may not have valid driver’s licenses or state-issued identification cards – changed the game.
“There are a number of people who do not appear to have IDs,” Tillis said. “We need a treatment for that.”
Democratic House leader Larry Hall welcomed the compromising spirit from McCrory but cautioned that GOP lawmakers rejected a similar compromise bill last year.
“I hope that the governor chimes in to say we need to be reasonable on this, not divisive on it,” the Durham attorney said.
The day was not without political ideology.
Both Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who retained their leadership posts by acclamation votes, took party lines in their acceptance speeches.
Tillis opened the House session by pledging to keep North Carolina the least unionized state in the country, raising the specter of enshrining in the constitution the state’s “right to work” law, which prohibits union membership as a condition of employment.
In his remarks, Berger thanked the senators and then launched a few broadsides across the aisle. Berger noted this is the first time since the 19th century that Republicans have controlled the legislative and executive branches – and there was blame to place. “For too many years, North Carolina tried to tax and spend its way to prosperity,” Berger said. “And for too many years, North Carolina lost jobs, lost businesses, failed to educate many of our children, and struggled to compete.
“Our leaders had lost their way. And our state lost its place as the leader of the South and the envy of the nation.”
McCrory staked a more bipartisan position amid the party revelry, taking time to meet with Senate Democrats.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat, said his caucus won’t always agree with McCrory but welcomed his visit. “There was nothing formal about it,” Nesbitt said. “We just wanted to get acquainted, and say ‘Hi’ to one another.”
Navigating the hallways at the Legislative Building is vaguely familiar to McCrory from his days as Charlotte mayor. But in the campaign, he didn’t offer a specific agenda, making him a bit of a wildcard.
Just about every lobbyist in town is trying to get five minutes with the new governor. Flanked by his chief of staff and chief lobbyist, McCrory couldn’t take two steps without a lobbyist or lawmaker reaching out a hand and asking for a meeting. “You’ve got quite an entourage. It used to be just you,” Berger told McCrory as they met in the hallway amid a gaggle of governor’s office staffers and law enforcement agents.
How McCrory works with a Republican supermajority in each chamber, with enough votes to void any veto, and who takes the lead remains among the biggest questions facing his nascent administration. But his visit “sends a message that he’s going to be directly involved with the leadership of the House and Senate, compared to Perdue, who stayed over in the governor’s office,” said David McLennan, a Peace University political expert who attended the day’s session.
The voter ID shift hints toward another question McCrory faces as he interacts with an increasingly conservative lawmaking body, McLennan said.
“Does he move to the right or be more of a centrist, like he was as mayor?” he asked. “Right now, he wants the support of all North Carolinians, at least for a while.”
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