RALEIGH — After four years of turning North Carolina politics upside down, Republicans at the General Assembly could be prepping for a more subdued two-year legislative session.
GOP legislators entering power in both chambers for the first time in 140 years in 2011 have willed their conservative bent on state government ever since at a hefty pace. First they flexed their muscles early and often against Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, overriding her vetoes on the budget and abortion restrictions.
In 2013, lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory jumped out of the blocks quickly to reject Medicaid expansion and cut maximum unemployment benefits. Broad tax rate cuts and election law changes followed. Protesters of their policies came to Raleigh and were arrested weekly.
Heading into the 2015 session that begins in earnest Wednesday, however, Republicans legislative leaders offered a less profuse agenda — job creation, some tax changes, performance-based teacher pay and possibly a different way to run Medicaid.
In their opening-day speeches and interviews, Senate leader Phil Berger and new House Speaker Tim Moore used the word “continue” often — continue conservative policies, continue economic growth and education reform and continue to make government more efficient.
“We want to build on what we’ve done over the past four years,” Berger told reporters earlier this month. “While I’d like to be able to stand up here and tell you that there’s this great new initiative out there and we’ve got all kinds of money to pay for it, that’s just not where we are.”
With dramatic changes completed during the past four years and the arrival of a new speaker, 2015 could generate “perhaps a more normal agenda for the legislature on more traditional issues” like jobs and the economy, said Tom Fetzer, a longtime GOP consultant and fundraiser turned lobbyist.
“A lot about governance is the art of the transition, so how well this works will somewhat define the maturity that Republicans are ready to show and govern,” said Fetzer, who was state Republican Party chairman the year it took over the legislature.
That’s not to say Republicans will avoid divisive topics. Berger wants legislation to exempt court officials from participating in now-legal same-sex marriages in North Carolina, for example. But Moore downplayed social issues, saying Republicans have pretty much addressed them during the past four years.
“So I think we’re at a position now when we can focus on governing, actually moving forward with managing the affairs of state,” Moore said.
Individual lawmakers may be quiet for now about meatier proposals because they’re still working on them, or they want to hear privately from colleagues before deciding they’re worth pursuing. Berger and Moore couldn’t describe the direction their colleagues would take on economic incentives, tax reform or Medicaid because it’s too early in the session or McCrory hasn’t offered a proposal.
Democrats aren’t sold on the idea of a restrained public agenda by Republicans. Democrats contend the GOP has implemented extreme policies that have hurt the middle class, minority groups and women.
With politicians, “it’s better to look at deeds and not words,” said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake. “There’s plenty more damage that can be done.”
Conservative groups, meanwhile, are prepared to punish Republicans who try to walk a more moderate bent. The state chapter of Americans for Prosperity will call out GOP lawmakers back in their home districts who veer from fiscally conservative principles, state president Donald Bryson said. The group is opposed to restoring film production tax credits and expanding Medicaid.
“We want to hold election officials — including Republicans — accountable,” Bryson said.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, a health budget writer, said urgency is lacking for the GOP compared to 2011 because at that time the state was facing a budget gap of $2.5 billion between revenues and expenses. There was also a lot of pent-up energy among Republicans wanting to be in charge.
“After doing this for four years and having both the executive (branch) on board for two of those years, we did the changes that were 140 years in the making,” Hise said. “Now, we’ve set a course.”