Politics & Government

Rift in Raleigh could stall N.C. budget

Gov. Pat McCrory
Gov. Pat McCrory

The feud has been a running subtext to North Carolina’s legislative session, with threats and perceived insults occasionally flaring into headlines.

Now some say it may be contributing to the state’s budget impasse.

Tension between Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP Senate leaders, particularly President Pro Tem Phil Berger, has colored a session that lawmakers hoped to adjourn by July 4.

GOP senators say McCrory, more than previous governors, has injected himself into the budget battle, further complicating controversies over teacher pay and Medicaid funding.

“It’s not helping,” says Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who chairs the Rules Committee. “I don’t think the daily communication attacking our budget is helpful at all.”

McCrory has threatened to veto any budget that resembles the current Senate proposal because he says it would force layoffs of thousands of teacher assistants and cuts to Medicaid benefits. He’s compared Senate leaders with Democrats, even U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. GOP senators, meanwhile, have threatened to override McCrory’s veto of an earlier bill. One threatened to subpoena McCrory’s budget director if he failed to appear before a committee, and at one point, Berger accused McCrory of “staging media stunts and budget gimmicks.”

To some extent the feud reflects the institutional tension between branches of government, no matter the party in control. But it’s also a clash of philosophy and power.

“This increasingly looks like a political death match – with one survivor in the end,” Democratic blogger Gary Pearce wrote last week. “I’m betting on Phil Berger.”

McCrory vs. Senate

On budget issues McCrory has consistently sided with the House and its Republican speaker, Thom Tillis of Huntersville. When the governor held a news conference on education at the Executive Mansion last month, it was Tillis and House members invited to stand with him, along with teachers and school officials.

McCrory downplays a rift with the Senate. To him it’s broader.

“There’s tension between the Senate and about everyone, including the executive branch, the House, teachers, superintendents, doctors, mayors, the speaker and even airport directors,” he says.

“There’s an institutional history here where the Senate leadership exerts a great deal of power and influence over government policy and legislation with very little pushback. I’m pushing back for good policy.”

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, says it’s partly ideological.

“You’re starting with a (Senate Republican) caucus that is not only more conservative but generally tends to be more rural in their representation,” he says.

Late last week, McCrory called Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown and asked him to arrange a meeting with Senate Republicans. He says he wants to talk, and listen, to “rank-and-file” members as well as leaders.

Berger plans to ask his caucus to accept the request.

“While we don’t always agree on every issue, I know the governor cares deeply about our state, and I’m hopeful the Senate and House will reach a compromise on the budget soon that the governor can sign,” Berger said in a statement.

Gregarious, guarded

It’s not the first time tensions have flared.

Last year it was Senate Republicans who drove major policy debates on everything from abortion rights to voter identification, with the governor often seen as little more than a spectator.

Berger, meanwhile, was winning accolades. Business North Carolina magazine named him its Mover and Shaker of the Year. One columnist called him “the most powerful figure in state government.”

While McCrory was new to state government, Berger is a seven-term lawmaker from Eden and widely regarded as a student of government, with an appetite for detail and a command of bills and policy.

McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, can be spontaneously unscripted, if notoriously thin-skinned.

“He’s one of the best back-slappers I’ve ever seen,” says Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat who frequently sparred with McCrory on a Charlotte TV show. “But it hasn’t translated into success in the Senate.”

Berger is more guarded. “Phil plays it close to the vest,” says Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican. “No matter how much disdain he has for some issue or someone, he never lets it show.”

It was Berger, alone among top state officials, who met with Moral Monday protesters last month after they staged a sit-in outside his office.

Government 101

The dispute comes down to power, and different views of their respective roles.

McCrory says other governors have seen their budget recommendations virtually ignored by lawmakers. “Before I sign something, I want to make sure I have as much input as possible,” he says.

Senators say that under the state constitution, legislators make the laws. The governor enforces them.

“Government 101,” says Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews. “There are three branches (of government). One doesn’t dictate to the others.”

In an interview on Charlotte radio station WFAE last week, McCrory compared Senate leaders to Democratic leaders in Raleigh and Washington.

“Some of my Senate Republicans, when they got the majority, they’re trying to replicate (the Democrats),” he said. “That’s frankly the culture I wanted to change.”

“I’m an outsider,” McCrory says, “and my goal is to change the culture, not necessarily embrace it – whether it’s done by Republicans or Democrats.”

Some GOP senators say McCrory is more critical of his fellow Republicans than he was of his Democratic opponents, including former Gov. Bev Perdue.

Tucker says McCrory appears to have “some real animosity” toward Senate leaders: “I don’t think he’s taken the class on ‘Winning Friends and Influencing People’ in the Senate.”

Says McCrory: “I’m the only person right now elected by all the people of North Carolina. I’m not in a district, so I’m speaking on behalf of people outside the (Raleigh) Beltline.”