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Rucho’s passion falls short of his North Carolina legislative goals

RALEIGH The waiting room outside Bob Rucho’s Senate office is mostly empty these days. All but gone are the lobbyists and staffers craving a moment of his time.

Gone, too, is the crunch of meetings that kept him at the heart of some of the session’s most far-reaching issues – tax overhaul, hospital costs and creation of a Charlotte airport authority.

Now it’s a different world for the Matthews Republican, who until two weeks ago was one of North Carolina’s busiest and most powerful lawmakers.

Suddenly, he says, “I have a lot more free time.”

Triggering the change was an unusually public clash between the passion of one lawmaker and the pragmatism of others.

The turning point came in mid-June when Senate leaders – in response to signals from Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led House – abandoned Rucho’s ambitious tax overhaul plan in favor of a more modest approach.

Rucho, 64, responded with a letter blasting McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both fellow Mecklenburg County Republicans.

“It is a huge disappointment that the governor and the speaker … did not provide the leadership or have the political backbone to fight the special interest groups,” he wrote.

Rucho also resigned as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Senate GOP leader Phil Berger of Eden refused to accept his resignation. But Rucho no longer stands at the dais, choosing instead to sit quietly with other members.

The break with leaders of his own party – even from his own county – was unusually public and personal.

“People will say it’s because you didn’t get your way,” Rucho says, sitting in his office. “I say no because there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. And if you don’t stand on principle, why should you be up here representing the people?”

Berger was originally on board with Rucho’s tax proposals. He even trumpeted them at a news conference and in a video.

But, Berger says, “it became clear that neither the governor nor the House was going to be willing to pass a plan that was similar to the plan that we had introduced.”

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, says Berger reacted the way lawmakers often must in adjusting to a changing political reality.

“Down here,” he says, “you have to pivot quickly.”

Victories and frustration

Rucho’s eighth term has brought its share of victories and frustrations.

He’s a main sponsor of a bill to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to an independent authority. He pushed it through the Senate in a month.

He also sponsored a bill to make hospital costs more transparent and more affordable. It passed the Senate in early May but more than a month later is still stuck in a House committee.

The airport authority bill is also stalled in the House. Leaders there, with the support of Tillis and McCrory, are pushing a compromise measure that would create an airport study commission.

At the same time, opponents are in court challenging the voting districts Rucho helped draw in 2011.They hope to persuade a three-judge panel to overturn them.

In Charlotte, nothing has drawn more attention than the airport. And for Rucho, the latest House proposal is frustrating.

“It’s already been studied,” he says, referring to a city-funded study that concluded an authority might be the best long-term way to run the airport. “At this point what we’re saying is, we need to move forward.”

He suggests 2014 politics lies behind the push to compromise.

Tillis, running for the U.S. Senate, needs the support of the state’s largest county. And one recent poll showed only 16 percent of Mecklenburg County voters approve the change to an airport authority.

“If someone was thinking of running for office in 2014,” Rucho says, “they’re very cautious about where they go or how they lead.”

A Tillis spokesman dismissed the notion, saying the speaker is trying to find an answer that works for everybody.

‘Full of Swiss cheese’

Nothing has claimed more of Rucho’s energy than tax overhaul.

A tax system built during the Great Depression, Rucho says, doesn’t work in a 21st-century economy. Moreover, he says, it’s a system “full of Swiss cheese, loopholes and giveaways.”

As if to illustrate it, he reaches up to an office shelf and pulls down a two-inch thick green volume containing North Carolina’s revenue laws.

“I want that to be the size of a comic book,” he says.

His answer: a complete tax overhaul that would, simply put, reduce income tax rates, eliminate loopholes and broaden the sales tax base to dozens of services.

For nearly two years, he has tried to sell the idea to anybody who would listen. By his own count, he showed his PowerPoint to almost 3,000 people across the state.

After explaining that North Carolina has one of America’s highest unemployment rates, he would say: “This is what you need to fix. Now how do you fix it?”

The solution, he said, was getting rid of “bad taxes” and replacing them with a “pro-growth,” consumption-based tax.

Democrats called Rucho’s tax proposal regressive. They said it would raise taxes on low- and middle-income people while giving tax breaks to the rich.

But Rucho insisted that by spurring job creation and economic growth, his plan would help everybody.

So he’s been on a mission, talking to economists and calling out lobbyists who opposed him. No one questioned his work ethic. He would stay at his desk into the night, emailing staffers as late as 3 a.m.

“He’s known as one of the most passionate and committed advocates for the things he believes in,” says lobbyist Tom Fetzer, a former state Republican chairman.

Rucho is a stocky, bushy-browed Massachusetts native who’s never lost his New England accent. To admirers he’s a bulldog. To others he’s a pit bull, quick to anger.

“You have to be able to work with people, even people you disagree with, and he doesn’t seem to have the ability to do that,” says Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat, who chairs the county delegation.

‘Thwarted by McCrory’

Tax overhaul has been a Republican priority. The governor campaigned on it. So did GOP legislators.

As far back as February, administration Budget Director Art Pope and Tillis expressed reservations about Rucho’s plan. But on May 30, McCrory spoke out.

In a news release, he said, “I cannot support a plan which turns too many North Carolinians into first-time tax collectors,” he said. “I am also opposed to taxing food and medicine,” referring to other components of Rucho’s plan.

This week, the Senate is expected to approve a revised plan more in line with McCrory’s ideas and the House proposal.

“We felt we had a chance of moving forward with a plan as originally introduced,” Berger says. “We had talked to a lot of people. … (But) a decision was made that we had to look in a different direction because we wanted tax reform and we wanted something that would help North Carolina.”

Rucho says such incremental plans simply “nibble around the edges” of the problem.

Berger, he says, wanted to support his plan but was “thwarted by McCrory.” (A spokeswoman for the governor declined comment.)

Going for broke

It’s been hard for Rucho to accept less ambitious changes.

Some Republicans say he’s like a football player who’s run the ball near the goal with time running out. Instead of kicking a field goal to win, he insists on trying for a touchdown.

Even Republicans say Rucho has never been much of a compromiser. His passion and single-mindedness, they say, is both his strength and weakness.

Rep. Bill Brawley says his fellow Matthews Republican may be down, but he’s not out.

“Bob Rucho is smart, courageous and tough, and he’s not done by a long shot,” Brawley says. “He’ll bounce back.”

Berger, the Senate leader, says Rucho deserves credit for any tax overhaul that passes.

“We wouldn’t be anywhere on it if it hadn’t been for Sen. Rucho,” he says.

Says Rucho: “What we have done is make a very compelling argument that the status quo is no longer able to meet the needs of an urban state. I think that’s a victory in its own right.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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