Politics & Government

Conservative architects in NC General Assembly heading home

Chairman of a House judiciary committee, Rep Leo Daughtry, left, and Sen. Tom Apodaca, right, talk with N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin, center, after he delivered a State of the Judiciary address before the N.C. General Assembly on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
Chairman of a House judiciary committee, Rep Leo Daughtry, left, and Sen. Tom Apodaca, right, talk with N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin, center, after he delivered a State of the Judiciary address before the N.C. General Assembly on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at the Legislative Building in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

There are signs that what then-House Speaker Thom Tillis called “the conservative revolution” in Raleigh is beginning to lose some steam.

Several of the key architects of the revolution have either left Raleigh or announced their plans to do so. On Monday, Sen. Tom Apodaca, the powerful Rules Committee chairman, announced he would not seek re-election.

Last month, Sen. Bob Rucho, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a force behind large tax cuts and redistricting, announced his impending retirement.

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, the legislature’s leading social conservative, announced in September that he would not seek re-election. Rep. Leo Daughtry, perhaps the legislature’s most experienced business conservative and a former gubernatorial candidate, announced that he would not seek re-election in October. Tillis left last year when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Art Pope, a leading strategist and funder of the conservative rising, resigned his post as state budget director last year.

That is a considerable brain drain in the Republican legislative leadership. It reflects the toll that serving in the citizen-legislature has on lawmakers’ professional and personal lives – particularly if they are serving in a time-consuming leadership role.

But it also reflects that the conservative revolution has succeeded in many – if not all – of its goals.

“We’ve come to a point where we’ve accomplished almost everything we set out to do,’’ Apodaca said Monday in announcing his decision.

Since taking control of the legislature as a result of the 2010 election, the Republicans have essentially moved North Carolina policy from a moderate course to a markedly conservative one.

(It should be noted that prior to the Republicans winning a majority, North Carolina ranked 45th in the country in state government per capita spending growth in the years between 2001 and 2011, according to a 2013 study by the conservative Tax Foundation. North Carolina also was ranked in most surveys as among the most business friendly states in the country.)

The Republican legislature assumed control at a time when a response was needed to a recession that was particularly bad in North Carolina, one that devastated many small towns with the closings of textile and furniture factories that were already in trouble.

The GOP leaders argued that North Carolina needed to be more competitive in recruiting and retaining businesses than it had been, and that the state’s traditional approach was no longer working.

They prescribed the largest tax cuts in North Carolina history, slowed state spending (the General Fund budget in 2011 was $19.6 billion and the budget today is $21.7 billion), loosened environmental regulations, passed the nation’s stingiest unemployment benefits, declined to expand Medicaid health insurance program as part of the Affordable Care Act, introduced private school vouchers for certain groups, as well as many other initiatives.

It has been arguably the most consequential period of legislating in North Carolina since the 1930s when, faced with the dire circumstances of the Great Depression, the legislature redesigned state government, taking control of the roads and prisons and consolidating the state university system.

While the Republican legislature drew huzzahs from conservatives here and nationally, it also created a sharp backlash that included the creation of the Moral Monday movement, which accused the legislature of favoring the rich over the poor and public education. So the legislative leaders have been engaged in near constant ideological battles which, while energizing, can also be emotionally draining year after year.

Movement conservatives still have a wish list of policy changes – ranging from more support for private education, to less support for solar power, to a constitutional limit on spending. But the legislature in the last session showed fewer signs of ideological ardor, and in a number of instances, such as teacher pay, began moving back toward a more moderate brand of conservatism.

The Republicans almost certainly will retain control of the legislature after the 2016 election. But whether they will retain a veto-proof majority or whether Republican Gov. Pat McCrory will be re-elected is far less certain.

Every revolution runs its course. Having succeeded in pulling state policy to the right, some of the key architects are heading home.

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