NC Speaker finds allies in Democrats

Speaker Tim Moore, left, huddles with Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, during a House session last week.  Moore has charted a more bipartisan, centrist path than Thom Tillis did as speaker, according to voting records and legislators of both parties.
Speaker Tim Moore, left, huddles with Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, during a House session last week. Moore has charted a more bipartisan, centrist path than Thom Tillis did as speaker, according to voting records and legislators of both parties. tlong@newsobserver.com

When House Speaker Tim Moore sought to pass a $2.85 billion bond referendum last week, he needed help from an unlikely group: Democrats.

Republicans have a supermajority in both the House and Senate – a level of power that could easily doom the minority party to irrelevance. But with a proposal to take on debt to fund state buildings and roads, Moore lost the support of 21 hard-right Republicans Thursday.

And without 29 Democrats voting for the bonds, the measure would have failed – likely dooming a major priority for Gov. Pat McCrory.

The bond vote wasn’t the only time Moore, who became speaker in January, has had support from Democrats.

Democrats have voted alongside the GOP leadership more often this session than they did under Speaker Thom Tillis – most notably when 32 Democrats backed the Republicans’ budget bill, allowing it to pass with an 80 percent majority. Meanwhile, many of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans are voting against their leadership in greater numbers, including on the budget bill. Keeping that Democratic support could prove Moore’s biggest challenge yet as and he and his top deputies negotiate a budget compromise with the Senate.

Voting records show that the divide that separates Democrats and Republicans in the state House has grown narrower since Moore took over the speaker’s gavel.

Take Raleigh Democratic Rep. Grier Martin, for example. Under Tillis in 2013 and 2014, Martin voted with the House majority about 72 percent of the time. So far this year, he’s backed the majority on 83 percent of votes.

Martin said he doesn’t pay much attention to the voting statistics, but he has noticed a change in the House under Moore, a seven-term legislator from Kings Mountain. “The legislation that he’s allowed through has been more moderate” with a few big exceptions on social issues, Martin said. “I think that is what’s driving some of his right wing to vote against him and a lot of us to be OK supporting him.”

The floor debates have changed too, Martin said. “Speaker Tillis shut off debate extremely frequently,” leading Democrats to vote no because they didn’t think the issues were fully vetted, he said. “Speaker Moore has drastically reduced the artificial ending of debates. That’s allowed us to fully explore and grapple with legislation on the floor.”

Democrats’ support comes in part because Moore has made concessions to their concerns about how the House operates. Back in June, House Democratic Leader Larry Hall scored a small victory for his party.

Moore had been making a habit of last-minute additions to the House’s published calendar. Hall criticized the practice, saying it left little time to read bills and allow the public to weigh in before a vote.

Hall put up a roadblock on June 2, having Democrats object to each calendar addition. Moore stopped action in the session to huddle with Hall – and since then, agenda add-ons have become less common.

Senate in line

But what earns Moore praise from Democrats can also alienate the most conservative of his fellow Republicans. So far this year, 10 House Republicans have voted against the majority more than 10 percent of the time. Some have split with leadership twice as frequently as they did under Tillis, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year.

Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican, has voted against the majority 104 times this year – or about 11 percent of the time, up from 7 percent last session. Cleveland’s concern for social issues is evident from the “Pro-God, Pro-Gun, Pro-Life” T-shirts he sells on his campaign website. He says he considers each vote separately and wasn’t aware of his statistics.

“I vote the way that I feel my constituents would want me to vote,” the six-term legislator said. “Leadership, from one session to the other, changes, and when it changes, styles change, personalities change. It’s hard to say whether one speaker is more conservative than the other speaker.”

Rep. John Blust of Greensboro, another of the 10 Republicans most likely to vote against their peers, offered an explanation: the GOP’s supermajority in both chambers. He suggested that leadership doesn’t have to court the most conservative legislators to get bills passed. “Part of it could be having so many excess votes, there’s some of us they really don’t need,” he said.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said Moore differs from Tillis because he’s not running for U.S. Senate while also running the House. “Certainly Tillis was interested in higher office, so he knew he needed to play to a very unique audience,” Bitzer said. “Moore is much more willing to work with all sides and is not as ideologically driven.”

The state Senate, led by president pro tem Phil Berger of Eden, keeps far more rigid party discipline. Voting records show that 29 Republican senators have diverged with the majority on less than 3 percent of votes.

That level of discipline isn’t Moore’s goal, according to a brochure he gave Republican legislators when he ran for speaker. “The caucus should be seen as a collection of individuals, each accountable to their constituents and colleagues, rather than as a top-down organization with employees accountable to a boss,” he wrote.

Moore’s staff said he did not have time for an interview last week for this story. But in an interview with The N&O earlier this year, he said he wanted to try to keep partisanship to “an absolute minimum.”

House Rules Chairman David Lewis, who’s effectively Moore’s top lieutenant, said the voting statistics reflect the speaker’s leadership philosophy. “The speaker has continued to show great respect for all members, and he’s never asked anyone to vote against their own conscience and their own constituents for the good of the caucus,” Lewis said. “There’s been once or twice that I haven’t voted with him.”

Tough days ahead

That contrast will put Moore in a tough spot as the leaders in the two chambers work toward a budget agreement in the coming weeks. Each concession to the Senate’s budget priorities could make it harder to keep support from a majority of House members.

The Senate is taking a harder line on spending – a 2 percent increase in the new budget instead of the House’s 5 percent proposal – and wants sweeping tax changes that House Republicans oppose.

If Moore backs a shift in how sales tax revenues are distributed among counties, urban legislators from both parties would likely vote no. Each program cut from the original House package could lose Democratic votes. And keeping industry-specific tax credits from the House budget could prevent the most conservative Republicans from voting yes.

Berger and Moore have appointed 114 legislators – more than half their membership – to the formal conference committee for the budget deal. But that massive group hasn’t held a meeting, and leaders in both chambers say the real negotiations will involve budget committee chairs meeting privately.

House Democrats say they likely won’t be able to back the final budget – particularly if the bill features the Senate’s policy provisions and sharply lower spending.

“There is so much bad in the Senate budget,” Martin said. “Whatever budget emerges is going to be less moderate than the House budget.”

Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, said his party’s votes for the House plan doesn’t mean it’s the spending approach they want. “A number of Democrats supported the House budget only because they knew it would be better than the Senate budget,” he said. “It wasn’t so much that they were endorsing the budget as much as they were endorsing a less hard-line budget.”

The House budget passed with 32 Democrats voting yes and 11 Republicans voting no. If the Democrats won’t support the budget compromise and those 11 Republicans don’t jump on board, Moore would be left with 61 yes votes from the May budget vote – a razor-thin majority in the 120-member House.

But some of those House Republicans say they like elements of the Senate budget and hope negotiators from the other chamber succeed.

Blust voted against the original House budget because of its tax credits and 5 percent spending increase – two things the Senate bill doesn’t have. He said he’s hopeful the final product will have the best of both proposals and win his support. “I’m hoping the Senate will hold firm toward their spending and the House will hold firm on taking the policy out,” he said.

Rep. Chris Millis of Pender County also opposed the House budget and votes against the majority 14 percent of the time. In a two-page statement outlining his budget vote, he said tax credits for renewable energy projects are “unconscionable by way of a conservative majority.”

He also criticized grants for film productions and millions in a venture capital fund to help start-ups. “The combination of hundreds of millions of dollars per year being spent outside of the role of government and a retreat on uniform tax policy is too much for me to bear,” he wrote.

That’s harsh criticism from a fellow Republican, but Lewis says the speaker’s approach means he “doesn’t always intervene to stop fights.”

“Sometimes I wish maybe he would,” Lewis said. “But if you’re going to truly let people do their jobs, you’re going to have disagreements.”

Social issues

While Moore appears to get along better with Democrats than Tillis did, he hasn’t avoided controversial issues that have divided the House along party lines. Moore declined to take up a Religious Freedom Restoration Act similar to legislation that sparked business outcry in Indiana. But he did hold a vote – and timed a veto override – to ensure that the House passed a bill that exempts magistrates and register of deeds employees from marriage duties.

That prompted outcry from Democrats because Moore kept the override issue on the calendar for a week before calling for the vote with little warning.

Moore also held a vote – and another veto override – on new abortion regulations including a 72-hour waiting period. “He’s pursuing something of a moderate agenda but has to pander to his right wing,” Martin said.

Luebke said he hasn’t seen any changes in policy since Moore took over. “Leave aside the affable personality of Speaker Moore, and I think you find no difference in the substance of the bills,” Luebke said. “Whether it is on the economic issues or on the social issues, he has a strong conservative agenda.”

But it might not be conservative enough for some. Several Republicans say they aren’t sure whether they’ll be willing to support the final budget compromise when it emerges.

“I had a hard time voting for the House budget the way it was, and I’m going to have to wait and see what the conference budget is,” said Cleveland, the Jacksonville legislator. “It’s probably going to be a hard decision.”