Gov. Pat McCrory began the year looking for a fresh start.
A rough first year plagued by missteps put his approval ratings underwater and diminished his clout as state lawmakers drove the policy agenda.
So the Republican chief executive honed his message, refocused on education and took his pitch outside Raleigh to find a more receptive audience. This legislative session he pledged to take a more assertive role to get his voice heard.
The renewed effort is visible six months into his second year. It appeared to culminate with his push for an education spending plan supported by Speaker Thom Tillis that won a unanimous vote last week in the House.
But the governor’s attempt at his own “Carolina Comeback” – the term he uses to describe the state’s economic rebound – continues to face obstacles.
Twice in less than 24 hours, a recalcitrant Senate pushed back against McCrory, first dismissing the education spending measure without a vote Monday and then advocating Tuesday for an override of an earlier veto on an unemployment insurance bill.
McCrory responded Tuesday by demanding a vote on the education mini-budget and comparing the Senate leaders blocking its consideration to Democrats who ruled the Senate with an iron fist for years.
“This is a serious plan that deserves a vote from every senator,” he told reporters.
The legislation seeks to bypass a stalemate on the broader state budget measure, putting many of the more popular items into a smaller bill. It features teacher and state employee pay raises, restores bonuses for educators who earn master’s degrees and ensures money for thousands of teaching assistants.
McCrory appealed to educators at a meeting of his Governor’s Teacher Network in Durham to help him pressure senators to consider the bill.
“We need you to get them to vote on it and allow every senator to vote on an education plan that is not only going to make a difference today, it’s going to make a difference for generations to come,” McCrory told the teachers. “I need your help starting today.”
The remarks represent McCrory’s most aggressive effort this session to push his fellow Republicans to approve his agenda.
The shift this year is obvious to North Carolina political observers. “I think he discovered the use of the bully pulpit and he’s been effective with it,” said Chris Sinclair, a Republican strategist who worked for McCrory’s campaign.
McCrory’s push even won praise from within the Democratic-controlled state Department of Public Instruction. Deputy State Superintendent Rebecca Garland praised McCrory at the teacher event, saying his budget and education proposals are “evidence he has been listening” to teachers.
Senate challenges McCrory
But Republican Senate leaders appeared unfazed Tuesday by the governor’s new tactics.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said the chamber sent the education spending bill back to the House without a vote because it violated a rule that requires spending bills to be balanced.
The legislation earmarks $134 million for Medicaid, well below the state’s obligations for the health insurance program. It also doesn’t include enough money for its pension obligations.
“The (education spending plan) does not comply with the rules, it doesn’t comply with the (state) constitution, it’s an unbalanced budget and we are not going to take it up,” Berger said
Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca put it more bluntly. “I just might put it in the trash can,” the Hendersonville Republican said. “We are not going to do anything with that bill.”
On a different matter, another chasm opened Tuesday between McCrory and the Senate as the co-chairman of the chamber’s Finance Committee sent a letter to the House urging them to override the governor’s veto of an unemployment insurance bill earlier this session. The House had started to work on a new bill to address McCrory’s concerns.
“Together, we must look beyond the politics of Gov. McCrory’s veto and protect our state’s businesses and taxpayers from a return to the days of expensive dysfunction within our state’s unemployment insurance program,” wrote Sens. Bob Rucho of Matthews and Bill Rabon of Southport, both Republicans.
The GOP disorder provided fodder for Democratic legislative leaders.
Minority party leaders Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh and Rep. Larry Hall of Durham said Republicans started what they called an education and political crisis and didn’t deliver on their pledge for teacher salary hikes before the end of the fiscal year Monday.
“Now it’s July 1 – there’s no budget, no teacher pay raise and no clear path forward,” Hall said.
Teachers, voters skeptical
This time a year ago, more voters disapproved of McCrory’s performance than approved. His status reached a break-even point in December but slipped again through June.
The latest survey from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm in Raleigh, found the governor at 39 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval. Sixteen percent of North Carolina voters were unsure in a poll with a plus-or-minus 3 percentage point margin of error.
A late June survey commissioned by the conservative Civitas Institute gave him better marks, showing his approval at 48 percent and disapproval at 47 percent, a statistical tie within the 4 percentage point margin of error. But the poll reflects a drop from April, when McCrory’s picture looked better at 50 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval.
“I think the narrative has been set,” said Michael Bitzer, a political expert at Catawba College. “He has lost the bipartisan coalition that he was able to put together (in his 2012 election).”
McCrory’s tough road to regain confidence of voters is evident in the educators who are a part of his teacher network.
Yasmeen Robbins, a third-grade teacher in Fayetteville with seven years of experience, said teachers don’t feel appreciated. Her pay is frozen at a beginning teacher’s salary, and she is facing more tests imposed by lawmakers.
Robbins gives McCrory credit for pushing a teacher pay hike and addressing testing, but it is not enough yet to win her support. “He’s trying, and he’s acknowledging that teachers deserve better, but he has got to put it into practice,” she said.
Bess Sullivan, a music teacher in McDowell County with 10 years’ experience, had to sell her house and move into a rental because she and her husband couldn’t afford it any longer on her salary. She’s skeptical about a pay hike, given the turmoil in Raleigh.
“It definitely makes you feel not respected,” she said.
McCrory’s influence has limits
McCrory suggests education is one issue where he has asserted his agenda from the start, but he acknowledges an urgency.
“At this point in time we are running out of time. We made a commitment (to raise teacher pay), and we need to follow through with that commitment,” he told reporters after the teacher forum. “It’s my job as governor to sell the plan and also get support for the plan.”
Bitzer said the evidence is clear that McCrory is being more deliberate in making his stance known on legislation. The governor threatened to veto a charter school bill this week, which prompted lawmakers to rethink the measure.
But his influence has its limits.
“I don’t think the power dynamic has shifted at all,” he said. “McCrory just saw an opportunity to be more assertive. Whether that is going to play to his benefit or potentially backfire on him, we’re just going to have to wait and see on that.”