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Where the North Carolina GOP got its agenda

They cut taxes and regulations, even repealed the “death tax.” They enacted voter IDs and school vouchers, tightened rules on abortion clinics and loosened laws on guns.

They rejected federal Medicaid money, ended teacher tenure and cut benefits for the unemployed.

It was, says one GOP operative, the “national Republican agenda on steroids.”

Republican lawmakers passed 338 laws this year that will touch every North Carolinian’s pocketbook, every student’s classroom and every voter’s experience at the polls. Their sweeping changes have drawn praise from conservatives, scorn from Democrats and punch lines on Comedy Central.

It was the first session in more than a century that Republicans controlled the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Democrats had little influence and less success.

But the Republican agenda was, in fact, many agendas.

Some came from think tanks. Some from the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council. Some from conservative ideas that had taken root nationally. Some came from business lobbyists or from partisan politics.

“The voters elected a conservative majority, and they got a conservative agenda,” Republican consultant Marc Rotterman says. “And I don’t think anybody should be surprised by that.”

Critics say GOP lawmakers went too far.

Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch, says North Carolina voters, who split narrowly in the past two presidential elections, didn’t suddenly veer far right in 2012.

“They voted for more conservative people,” he says. “They didn’t vote for this agenda.”

North Carolina is one of 26 states where Republicans control the legislature; it’s one of 31 with a GOP governor. Some of the agenda here was shared across the country.

North Carolina Republicans, for example, cut taxes by $2.8 billion over five years. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, seven other states with Republican governors – and most with GOP legislatures – also cut taxes significantly.

One piece of the puzzle

One group that influenced legislation in North Carolina and across the country was the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

ALEC is a clearinghouse for pro-business and conservative ideas and an incubator of conservative legislation. Nationwide, the Center for Media and Democracy identified 466 ALEC model bills that became legislation this year.

It’s unclear how many there were in North Carolina, though several of the group’s model bills became templates for actual legislation.

At one point, Raleigh’s News & Observer counted at least two dozen bills that matched ALEC priorities. They included voter ID, publicly financed vouchers for private schools, and prioritizing energy exploration.

One ALEC model bill called for states to claim sovereignty under the 10th Amendment. It became a resolution co-sponsored by GOP Rep. Larry Pittman of Concord, but it didn’t pass.

A model called the Commonsense Consumption Act was designed to prevent civil suits against food manufacturers whose products may lead to obesity. Known as the “Big Gulp” bill, it was introduced by a handful of legislators and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory last month.

Republican Rep. Craig Horn of Weddington, who has attended ALEC conferences, minimized its influence in North Carolina.

“I’m not aware that it’s driven any agendas on the House side,” he says. “Some folks have agendas, and certainly there’s no end to groups with agendas. Some of the big issues tend to move around the country.”

Critics such as the liberal Progress North Carolina say ALEC has an undue influence in North Carolina. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius won the group’s “Legislator of the Year” award in 2011. McCrory’s legislative lobbyist, Fred Steen, is a past state chairman.

Justin Guillory, research director for Progress N.C., says ALEC has significant influence. But, he adds, “ALEC is just one part of a larger picture of (lawmakers) writing legislation to benefit wealthy corporate contributors.”

“I don’t want to diminish ALEC’s impact,” he says, “but they’re only one part of the puzzle.”

Art Pope’s influence

Two groups based in Raleigh also claim a share of the GOP agenda. Both are funded by Art Pope, McCrory’s budget director and a top financier of conservative candidates and causes.

The Civitas Institute offers what its president, Francis DeLuca, calls an “intellectual underpinning” for a variety of issues including regulatory and voting changes.

For example, the group wanted to end straight-ticket voting and even early registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Both found their way into a sweeping election law overhaul signed by the governor.

“I’d like to think we had a little hand in it,” DeLuca says.

Last year the John Locke Foundation, the second Pope-funded group, published a book that outlined a series of fiscal and economic proposals, including tax and Medicaid changes and increasing the size of the state’s rainy day fund.

“Virtually everything we proposed in the book in 2012 was enacted in 2013,” says Locke President John Hood.

Special interests

Think tanks weren’t the only influences. Corporations and interest groups pushed their own agendas, sometimes armed with their own model bills.

Charlotte Republican Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer co-sponsored a bill to protect a company called Crown Holdings from asbestos liability stemming from its purchase of another company. Similar measures had been introduced and passed in 16 other states.

Though ALEC has a similar model bill, Schaffer says she was approached by a company lobbyist, who showed her proposed legislation.

“I get lots of model legislation from people,” she says. “That’s something that I saw a lot. (They say) ‘Here’s something we’re looking at. Use every word or scale it down.’ ”

The bill never got out of committee.

One group that had better luck: Grassroots North Carolina, a gun-rights advocacy group.

It pushed successfully for relaxed gun laws. Now people with concealed-carry permits can bring their weapons onto school campuses and into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. And local governments can’t ban concealed handguns in parks and greenways.

President Paul Valone says the group had fought for the privileges for years.

“People figure that the Republicans are going to roll over and give us everything we want,” Valone says. “That is not the case. A certain amount of pressure had to be applied to both chambers.”

The voting bill

Probably no legislation brought North Carolina as much national attention than the voting bill.

On Friday, Republican Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and retired general, told a Raleigh audience that new voting restrictions will hurt the Republican Party and punish minority voters. “It immediately turns off a voting bloc the Republican Party needs,” he told a group of corporate executives who had just heard from McCrory.

Also Friday, veteran civil rights leader Julian Bond told Bloomberg TV that “North Carolina has become the new Mississippi.”

While North Carolina’s voting law is one of the most sweeping in the country, voter ID legislation has been popular for more than a decade.

Since 2001, ID bills have been introduced in 46 states, according to the NCSL. At least 33 states had some kind of voter ID law before North Carolina passed its. Groups like ALEC have prepared model legislation.

Supporters say such laws protect the integrity of elections. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and an architect of the legislation, has said while the ID requirement ensures against fraud, other provisions, such as ending same-day registration, are designed to streamline the process and make it easier for elections officials.

Republican strategist Carter Wrenn believes there’s a political motivation as well.

He says many things Republicans changed, such as early voting and same-day registration, were adopted in recent years when Democrats controlled the legislature. And Democrats were influenced by their own affiliations and business interests as well.

“Democrats passed a series of laws because they helped Democrats,” he says, “and Republicans repealed them because they helped Democrats.”

Bob Hall, research director for Democracy North Carolina, a group that opposed the voting changes, says it doesn’t necessarily matter where bills come from.

“No matter where it came from, it had to be blessed by the leadership here in North Carolina,” he says. “And each member had to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ So they’re all accountable.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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