A week that began with Gov. Pat McCrory’s court victory over the General Assembly brought a new clash with Senate Republicans that could lead to legislative defeats.
The skirmish punctuated a divide that’s marked the early weeks of the legislative session: between urban and rural North Carolina.
Nowhere has the divide been more evident than in the debate over economic incentives.
It was literally on display when Senate leaders unveiled their incentives plan next to a giant pie chart that showed three counties – Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham – had received 86 percent of job development grants. Their bill would limit money to those counties.
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McCrory, a Charlotte Republican, said the plan not only “breaks the bank (and) breaks a promise” but “divides North Carolina.”
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Majority Leader Harry Brown returned the criticism.
“It’s time for the 97 other counties in this state to be treated with respect,” Brown said in a statement. “In fact, Mecklenburg County receives more in sales tax revenue than more than 50 of our least prosperous counties combined.”
The jabs came two days after a three-judge panel ruled that the governor, not the legislature, has the power to appoint boards such as the Coal Ash Commission that perform administrative functions. Lawmakers are appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The Senate also responded with a freeze on most appointments to most state boards and commissions.
“To a large extent we have a power struggle going on,” said Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at UNC-Chapel Hill.
And political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said lawmakers could hold up McCrory’s legislative wish list, including his $21.5 billion budget, call to renew historic tax credits and proposed bond issues for transportation and state buildings.
“It’s not just going to be his appointments but his entire legislative agenda,” Bitzer said. “It can be held hostage by those 34 Republican senators if they choose to.”
Rural areas hurting
The context for much of the dispute is the ongoing friction between urban areas and less prosperous rural counties. Nobody denies the gap.
Wake County, for instance, had a median household income of $61,574 in 2010, according to the N.C. Rural Center. Mecklenburg’s was $52,363.
In Berger’s home, Rockingham County, the median income was $38,063. In Brown’s Onslow County, it was $41,969.
New figures released Friday showed that most urban counties were below the state’s 5.9 percent average January unemployment rate. Most rural counties were higher; seven had rates over 10 percent.
When the Senate voted to reconfigure the districts for the Wake County commissioners this week, Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville brushed aside Democratic objections.
“Let’s get down to it,” he told the Senate. “We’re talking rural vs. city. As we grow, we see what the cities do, they take over everything.”
“Those words stuck with me,” Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, said later. “I can’t help but think that that philosophy drives legislation. … There is an assault on urban counties in our state.”
One GOP senator has been more specific.
“There’s not a rural-urban split – there’s a Raleigh-Charlotte versus anybody else split,” Sen. Andy Wells of Hickory told The Associated Press this month. “You’ve got some communities that have done really well, but others have just been real flat.”
Sales tax changes
Brown, from Jacksonville, recently told The (Raleigh) News & Observer that he plans to introduce legislation that could shift millions in sales tax revenue from the 20 wealthiest counties to the 80 poorest by changing the formula by which it’s distributed.
Mecklenburg County and its municipalities would lose about $35 million.
“Over time we’ve started to develop two North Carolinas,” Brown said. “We’ve got to find a way to make this thing fair.” Now, he added, “You’ve got about 20 winners and 80 losers.”
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who co-chairs the Finance Committee, said he’s planning to introduce an alternative to help rural areas without hurting urban centers.
“The winners don’t win as much, the losers aren’t punished,” he said without offering details. “And it allows everybody to take part in the prosperity.”
Tension between the governor and Senate isn’t new. Last year McCrory threatened to veto the Senate version of the budget. And when he held a news conference on education at the Executive Mansion, it was then-Speaker Thom Tillis and House members invited to stand with him – not senators.
Apodaca said the urban-rural dynamic might be affecting the relationship between the governor and the Senate.
“That could be a big part of it,” he said. “He comes from the urban side. A lot of us come from the rural side.”
Like some other Republicans, he downplays the feud.
“It’s just the process of sausage-making,” he said.
Editor’s Note: A box with Saturday's story on Gov. Pat McCrory and the Senate incorrectly said a Senate economic incentives plan would shift money to rural areas. While it would limit incentive money to urban areas, it would not shift it to rural areas.