Berger's Bluster Tells Us a Lot
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger met with members of the media Wednesday to discuss the upcoming legislative session.
His remarks and answers to questions about what to expect this year had a bit of an odd ring to them.
Berger predictably trotted out many of the usual right-wing talking points about taxes, education and the state budget. And though some of the details were different, most notably plans for radical tax reform, it was in many ways an appearance that was reminiscent of last session, when Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis ruled the Republican roost and constantly battled and often belittled Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Republican Pat McCrory is governor now, the titular head of the Republican Party in North Carolina, and the man who will most likely drive his party's agenda for the next four years.
But McCrory's name barely came up in Berger's news conference. In fact, he mentioned U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan more times than he mentioned McCrory, criticizing her for not persuading the Senate to give North Carolina a way to slash unemployment benefits for some laid-off workers without losing a federal extension of the benefits for others.
Berger then deflected questions about rumors of his plans to challenge Hagan when she seeks re-election in 2014, saying that he has been approached about running but at this point is a candidate for no other office. He wasn't asked about his 16-minute-long political bio-pic produced last year, likely the first one ever produced for an incumbent state senator with no serious opposition.
Berger's appearance felt like not only a preview of the session, but also a reminder of his importance and ambition - an indication that he is bound and determined to be a powerful figure, whether there is a Republican governor or not.
From a policy standpoint, Berger's agenda was more disturbing news for people hoping that maybe the election of a governor who ran Charlotte as a moderate Republican mayor for 14 years would trim the tea party sails of the legislative leaders.
Instead, Berger hit most of the radical talking points, including a discussion of tax reform that would abolish the corporate and personal income taxes and partially replace the revenue with a higher sales tax on more things, including food.
Think about that for a moment. The tax plan of Berger's top lieutenant, Sen. Bob Rucho, would force poor families to pay state sales tax on food to help eliminate the income taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.
Berger took the tea party line on the Affordable Care Act, saying there's no support among Senate Republicans for expanding Medicaid, even though it would provide health care coverage for more than 500,000 low-income North Carolinians with the federal government picking up the entire cost for the first three years and more than 90 percent after that.
He also restated his support for an unnecessary and disenfranchising mandatory government-issued photo ID requirement to vote, though he wasn't clear if he would support funding an effort to make sure than the hundreds of thousands of people without photo IDs could obtain one.
Berger offered a few misleading talking points about unemployment benefits in support of the N.C. Chamber's plan to make unemployed workers suffer to pay for a series of unwise business tax cuts that forced the state to borrow money from the federal government to pay benefits when the Great Recession hit.
And of course, Berger expects no action on any proposal to tighten North Carolina's gun laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., murders of elementary school children and school staffers.
This is the General Assembly, after all, that voted last session to allow concealed weapons in parks and playgrounds, and seriously considered allowing bar and restaurant patrons to carry hidden and loaded weapons.
Finally, Berger said he hoped the state budget would be smaller this year than last year, when it was balanced with massive cuts to education, human services and environmental protections.
The first step in the budget process is a presentation of a spending plan by the politician living in the governor's mansion now, the governor about whom it's not clear Berger wants to talk very much.
That was the inescapable conclusion from Berger's media appearance this past week. The Senate President Pro Tem clearly won't be giving up the tea party mantle or the limelight anytime soon if he has anything to say about it.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at chris@ ncpolicywatch.com.
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