Politics & Government

With midterm election at hand, state Republican legislators get kinder, gentler

Is this the kinder, gentler Republican legislature?

This session, in the shadow of a U.S. Senate race and legislative elections, GOP leaders preserved teacher tenure, protected Medicaid eligibility for thousands of vulnerable residents and gave underpaid teachers a substantial pay raise.

“I actually believe if the Democrats were in the majority ... this would probably look a lot like (their) budget,” Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis said during debate on the House floor.

The 2014 term, in both tone and substance, shifted in significant ways from a year ago when Republican leaders took full control of the lawmaking process for the first time in more than a century and advanced a far-reaching conservative agenda that drew national attention and mass protests. Lawmakers finished most of their work Saturday but left open the possibility that they may return.

A year ago, Republicans rejected the expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law, a move that blocked hundreds of thousands of lower-income residents from receiving health care. This year, a cost-saving plan to remove thousands North Carolinians who are elderly or have disabilities from the current Medicaid rolls failed.

A year ago, lawmakers eliminated career status, or tenure, for public school teachers – an effort later invalidated by a judge. This year, an attempt to link a pay raise to the end of tenure met a roadblock.

A year ago, the state budget cut $120 million earmarked for teacher assistants. This year, Republican lawmakers touted efforts to preserve money for the positions.

GOP leaders also shunned other hot-button issues such as guns, women’s health and voting rights, a year after approving laws to allow firearms in bars, restrict abortions and require a voter ID at the polls. Instead, they put the emphasis on providing more money for education and putting tougher environmental regulations on coal ash waste, although the waste legislation isn’t finished.

“I think we passed enough controversial legislation last session to last us for a while, so we were able to do just the necessary stuff this time,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes, the House Republican leader from Hickory.

The second year of a two-year session is often limited in scope, though lawmakers showed a willingness to tackle major issues in 2012. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a top Republican from Charlotte, downplayed the notion that this term was different from last year’s or other short sessions.

“To me it’s not much different than any other short session,” she said. “They’re always about the budget, and they’re always in an election year.”

Starnes said the Republican agenda this session reflected what voters wanted. He acknowledged that public pressure about key issues – whether the state’s near-bottom national ranking in teacher pay or Duke Energy’s coal ash spill into the Dan River – helped motivate lawmakers.

Rep. Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican who represents one of the state’s most contested districts, said he appreciated the “incremental” theme of the session. “You don’t make a whole lot of big changes all at once because you don’t know which ones work,” he said.

But critics argued that Republicans moved to the center in 2014 because they realized they went too far a year ago.

“It’s a less extreme session, because the folks running the General Assembly realized how unpopular their ideology is, and it’s an election year,” said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the progressive N.C. Policy Watch.

Tillis candidacy a factor

The new approach was most evident in the House, where Tillis is making a U.S. Senate bid against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

The race, one of the most closely contested in the nation, added political pressure for the Huntersville lawmaker as he tries to appeal to a broad swath of voters in a campaign that will spotlight his legislative record.

“Certainly the U.S. Senate race overhung a lot of (the session),” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political analyst. Republican leaders “needed to take the anger of teachers off the table.”

The same is largely true for rank-and-file state lawmakers.

Unlike the state Senate, where most conservative lawmakers represent politically safe districts, about a dozen House seats are vulnerable to election challenges. And surveys showed moderate voters were uneasy after last year’s session.

Tillis’ campaign contributed to the acrimony this session between the House and Senate, said John Hood of the conservative John Locke Foundation.

“It has been a very intense session in terms of differences between the House and Senate,” Hood said. “I don’t think anybody is getting everything they want.”

The House and Senate traded sharp accusations throughout the summer legislative session. A measure to put tougher regulations on coal ash disposal – as well as other major issues, such as some incentives and tax credits – were victims of the turmoil. The House also chose not to take action on a bill the Senate wanted that would have limited the ability of Wake and several other counties to add a quarter-cent sales tax.

The tension was also a reflection of the House’s less ideological approach.

With support from Gov. Pat McCrory, Tillis rebuffed attempts from the Senate to push a more conservative agenda that included the efforts to curtail Medicaid, trim teaching assistant positions and end teacher tenure.

“When teacher assistants know that the House fought and stood firm and was prepared to walk away without a budget change because we said zero teaching assistants will be cut, they are going to like it,” Tillis said during the budget debate Friday.

Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, defended his chamber’s policies, saying it would have helped ease cost overruns in Medicaid and provided bigger teacher raises. He said the chamber’s conservative initiatives “would have moved the state in the right direction further if we had been able to accomplish some of those things.”

A spokeswoman for Tillis declined to make him available for an interview.

Democrats say little changed

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the House “softened the worst stuff the Senate did.”

But he pointed to other areas where GOP leaders still advanced controversial legislation, such as new laws to legalize fracking, revoke local taxing authority and repeal the Common Core education standards.

“It’s not like these guys were all soft and fuzzy,” he said. “They were still ideological and I think extreme in the way they governed.”

This November, Democrats plan to remind voters about what Republicans did in the first year of the session. A particular focus will be the income and corporate tax cuts from 2013, which Democrats contend unfairly favored the wealthy and left the state with $5 billion less in revenue over the next five years to spend on priority areas.

“Nothing (this session) changed the fundamental decision that this body made, which was to favor the well-to-do and the well-connected over middle-class families,” Stein said of the tax law.

Democrats say the price tag is too high when money is needed for state services, from education to health care.

“That dwarfs whatever amount they put into teacher pay,” Stein said. “They could have given teachers a really meaningful pay increase. They wouldn’t have to cut the university; they wouldn’t have to slash hospitals.

“That was the fundamental choice, and that wasn’t affected by anything they did (this session).”

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