Even before the N.C. General Assembly convenes next Wednesday, its relationship is already off to a rocky start with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed several laws during a special session last month stripping the new governor of some of his powers. Cooper responded by filing a lawsuit challenging one of those laws that would prevent Democrats from assuming majorities on local elections boards as well as the state board, which would be merged with the State Ethics Commission.
A judge delayed that law from taking effect until the case is heard.
Where that relationship goes from here is up to Cooper himself, said Republican state Sen. Jerry Tillman, who represents Moore and Randolph counties and is the senior member of the county’s legislative delegation.
“This attitude of ‘I’m going to sue you if I don’t agree with what you are doing’ is the not the right way to go,” Tillman said. “With that kind of attitude, it will be a lot of gridlock and votes to override vetoes. I’m willing to work with him. If it is a good idea, I will listen to it. I am hopeful we can work together.”
But Tillman said the Republican leadership plans to continue on the same course regardless of who is in the governor’s mansion. The GOP holds veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.
“We are going to keep doing what we have been doing — reducing taxes, raising teacher salaries, improving our infrastructure and maintaining our rainy day fund. On tax reform, we have done a lot but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
State Rep Allen McNeill, a Randolph County Republican who represents a small part of Moore County, said voters elected Cooper as governor, though not by a large margin.
“But the citizens put us back in charge of the General Assembly,” he said. “We have just as much of a mandate to continue doing what we have been doing. We’ve done a good job. The state was in dire shape when we took over. We’ve gotten the state back on a good financial footing. We dug out of the that hole. I am proud of what we have done.
“If he (Cooper) wants help and be a part of we are doing, I would welcome that. I am willing to listen to him and give him the benefit of the doubt. If he wants to be an obstructionist, that is his choice. We are headed in the right direction.”
Tillman noted in a recent email to his constituents that Cooper was “critical of our fragility” for maintaining a $1 billion surplus and that it should be spent on more pressing needs.
“Hurricane Matthew was just the latest example of what it means to have a healthy rainy day fund,” he wrote in reference to the state’s response to help victims recover. “Really governor, what’s more pressing than people who have lost their homes, their farms and all their earthly possessions.”
Cooper’s recent announcement that he would seek to expand Medicaid under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act also drew the ire of Republican legislative leaders. It would add hundreds of thousands of people to the government insurance plan, with the state having to bear some of the cost. Legislators say his proposal violates a state law passed in 2013 that prevents expansion without their approval.
Tillman said that how the relationship evolves between the Republican-led legislature and a Democratic governor is “a big unknown.” He noted that things “didn’t go particularly well” during Democrat Beverly Perdue’s four years with Republicans holding veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Perdue chose not to seek re-election after one term.
Tillman also acknowledged House and Senate Republican leaders have not always agreed in the past, and that also did not always see eye-to-eye with McCrory.
It’s always been that way — and it always will,” he said. “Time will tell what’s in store come January 11. We’ll see.”
Republican state Rep. Jamie Boles, who represents most of the county, said Cooper and the Republican-led General Assembly will have “some disagreements.” But he hopes they will be able to find common ground on some issues.
“He understands the process,” Boles said of Cooper previously serving in the legislature before he became Attorney General. “I think we will be able to work together. Our priority is for North Carolina to prosper. We might disagree some on how to achieve that.”
He added that there will also be some “political sportsmanship” between the two sides. He also defended legislation enacted during the special session last month curtailing some of the governor’s powers.
“All the legislation we passed was intended to restore the balance of power,” he said. “We have that authority. This is constitutional.”
One of the bills passed by the Republican-controlled legislature — and signed by outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory — merges the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission into one panel and prevents Cooper from putting a Democratic majority on the state elections board this year.
The elections boards law, which Cooper is challenging in court, would change the makeup of the state and county elections boards. Since 1901, the governor has appointed a majority of the members of both boards — three of the five seats on the state board, and two of the seats on the three-member county board.
But under the new law, the boards will be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with an eight-member state election board and four-member county election board. Republicans will chair all boards in even years, Democrats in odd years. In North Carolina, no state elections occur in odd years.
Another bill enacted by the General Assembly requires that Cooper’s choices for Cabinet secretaries be subjected to Senate confirmation. Another reduced the number of state government employees Cooper can hire and fire at will from 1,500 to 300.
The number of employees increased to 1,500 from about 400 after McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, was elected in 2012.
While Cooper has been at odds with the General Assembly going back to his time as attorney general, he did strike a more conciliatory tone after his Jan. 1 swearing-in ceremony.
“I know and I am confident that although we may come at it from different ways, other leaders in this state and I can work together to make North Carolina its very best,” Cooper said. “The kind of North Carolina that we know that we can be.”
He also touched on that theme again in his inaugural address Saturday.
“Now is not the time to point fingers or dwell on recent battles,” he said in the taped address. “The people of this state are tired of yesterday’s politics. You expect — and deserve — public servants who reject cynicism, who don’t succumb to political paralysis, who negotiate differences in good faith. … I will do everything possible to reach consensus. I know we can find common ground on education when we all agree our teachers deserve a raise. I know we can come together to improve health care when we all agree that getting more families covered isn’t just a moral obligation but a financial responsibility, because we want all folks to pay fewer medical bills and have more money in their pockets.
“So don’t let the last few months discourage you. … Whether or not I won your vote, I’m going to be working for you.”
Once legislators are sworn in Wednesday and the chambers elect their leaders, they will not return to Raleigh again until Jan. 25, Boles said, to allow time to organize and appoint committees and committee chairs.
Things will likely heat up in March when Cooper presents his first budget.
“The budget is the big thing during this session,” Tillman said. “The budget drives a lot of the policy.”
Boles added, “We are looking forward to seeing what he is proposing.”