RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators begin a new session today amid rancor with a new governor and deep skepticism about whether they will reach consensus on big issues or remain stuck in a quagmire of state officials’ own making.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have already filed dueling lawsuits within the last month.
Even before Cooper took office Jan. 1, distrust killed an apparent deal during a pre-Christmas special session to repeal a law that limits LGBT rights and directs which public bathrooms transgender people must use.
“We’ve never had the polarization, the division, the bitterness that we’ve got now,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant in North Carolina. “We’re one of the most divided states in the country.”
Cooper, who defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last fall by just 10,000 votes, must deal with GOP legislators who hold veto-proof majorities. They don’t have to listen to him, let alone negotiate on important issues, if they remain unified.
Nevertheless, key leaders have identified a few potential areas for consensus as lawmakers return to Raleigh two weeks after choosing their leaders.
Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger have said deals could be reached on issues such as raising teacher pay, cutting taxes for low- and middle-class families, and addressing opioid addiction.
It will be tougher to hammer out a $22 billion state budget without a Cooper veto or persuade enough Republicans to repeal the so-called bathroom bill, also known as House Bill 2, that Cooper wants eliminated. Berger criticized Cooper for urging Senate Democrats to vote down Berger’s repeal bill last month that ultimately would have included a short moratorium on LGBT ordinances. Cooper responded that GOP leaders failed to carry out their repeal agreement.
All bets are off if Republicans decide to support just a partial repeal of HB2, consider further abortion restrictions or revive a voter identification mandate thrown out by a federal appeals court last summer. Cooper and Democrats will fight them.
Rep. Garland Pierce said his priorities will be the Hurricane Matthew recovery effort and education.
“For Robeson County there is still a long way to go,” Pierce said about recovery from the October storm. “We need to do all that we can to get those families back to where they were before. Get people back in those communities. We have a lot of people displaced in Fayetteville or around there we want back in our community.”
Beyond Matthew, Pierce wants the primary focus to be on education.
“That’s the sentiment and desire, to have a real impact on education,” he said. “We have got to make sure that no child is left behind in North Carolina schools. I think Democrats and Republicans agree on that.”
Pierce said he would to bump teacher pay again.
Relations between lawmakers and Cooper started on a bad footing.
GOP lawmakers called a special session in mid-December — separate from the HB2 session — and passed laws that reduce or check Cooper’s powers. Dozens of anti-Republican protesters were arrested at the Legislative Building during the session. Cooper challenged the laws in court and already has blocked one that would shift oversight of elections from him to the legislature.
Cooper didn’t endear himself to Moore and Berger during his first week in office when he started trying to expand Medicaid through the federal health care overhaul without the legislature’s OK, as state law requires. Cooper began doing so as Congress works toward repealing the overhaul altogether.
Cooper’s action “did not sit well with the General Assembly, and I don’t think that’s the right message to send right out of the gate,” said Chris Sinclair, a Republican consultant who worked for McCrory’s 2012 campaign. Legislative leaders sued and, for now, have blocked Cooper’s expansion efforts.
Sinclair said Cooper should extend first the handshake to GOP lawmakers in a state where the General Assembly historically has been the most powerful branch. Republicans also got welcome news two weeks ago when the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked a lower court order directing House and Senate boundaries be redrawn quickly and special elections be held this fall under the new lines. GOP majorities will remain through 2018 if the delay stays in place.
But Democratic consultants say Cooper is in the position of strength. They say he ran a campaign based on countering the state’s recent conservative shift, and his win should make GOP leaders think twice before passing more divisive laws. Cooper blamed the economic backlash over HB2 on McCrory, who signed the law.
A revenue surplus — North Carolina is currently $322 million ahead of projections — could provide a fiscal salve to the rough environment by funding initiatives legislators and Cooper support, said Mac McCorkle, an adviser to two previous Democratic governors.
North Carolina lawmakers usually adjourn in the early summer. If the session goes longer, the electorate could blame both Cooper and legislators for failing to get things done.
“I’m not optimistic, at least at first,” said McCorkle, now a Duke University professor. “It seems like a very poisonous atmosphere … Neither side can withstand for too long a growing perception that Raleigh’s just one big mess.”
Staff writer Mike Gellatly contributed to this report. He can be reached at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly