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Enter the Gang of Five

RALEIGH — These days, mentioning Jim Black’s name around the North Carolina Legislative Building is nearly akin to uttering “Lord Voldemort” at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School.

But my most vivid recollections of the former House speaker have nothing to do with the shenanigans that landed him in prison. They come from the summer and fall of 2001, when the legislature became locked in a long budget stalemate.

At least a couple of times each week, the reporters of the Capitol Press Corps would troop to the House dais, trying to prompt Black into saying something nasty about then-state Reps. Dan Blue, Toby Fitch or Mickey Michaux. We knew he wanted to.

Blue, Fitch and Michaux were members of the so-called Gang of Eight, eight liberal Democrats who didn’t go along with their fellow House Democrats and used Republican opposition to the Democratic budget to set themselves up as a separating negotiating block. They became a gateway to a final budget deal.

When the questions came, Black would pause, purse his lips, draw a deep breath and mumble an innocuous answer designed to be as inoffensive as possible.

As much as he may have disliked what the eight were doing, he knew they had him. They were going to determine the ultimate course of a state budget.

The dynamics have changed in 2011, but five conservative Democrats may have become the gatekeepers to a budget deal this year.

The five — Bill Owens of Pasquotank County, Jim Crawford of Granville County, Dewey Hill of Columbus County, Bill Brisson of Bladen County and Tim Spear of Washington County — voted with House Republicans in favor of a $19.3 billion budget crafted by those Republicans.

What makes their votes especially noteworthy is that Republicans do not have a veto-proof majority in the House. They need the support of at least four Democrats to override a gubernatorial veto.

Gov. Beverly Perdue hasn’t said that she will veto a Republican-crafted budget. She has condemned its cuts to public education.

The cuts come to $1.3 billion, or 11 percent, when measured against projected spending and $200 million when measured against current year spending. Thousands of teaching-related jobs would be eliminated.

In its current form, most observers expect that Perdue would veto the budget plan.

Immediately after the House vote, Owens and Brisson said that, despite voting for it, they weren’t happy with the education spending in the budget plan. They said that last week’s vote is no guarantee that they would vote for a final compromise bill with the Senate or with Republicans on any veto override.

In other words, Republican legislative leaders and Perdue better keep talking to them.

Just like the Gang of Eight back in 2001, the five Democrats who voted with Republicans could now be a major negotiating block that helps shape and broker a final budget.

And current House Speaker Thom Tillis might need to practice pausing, smiling and biting his tongue.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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