Fitzsimon File

Two telling opening day scenes

A little after 11:00 Wednesday morning, just an hour before the opening session of the General Assembly convened, State Republican Party Chair Robin Hayes stood in the cold, drizzling rain on Halifax Mall behind the Legislative Building to address a group of 20 or so tea partiers at a rally organized by the Moccasin Creek Minutemen, a Tea Party group from Zebulon.

The group's website is full of the typical hard right anti-government rhetoric warning of dangers like "stealthy socialism." It also includes an offensive joke based on the notion that Obama is a Muslim.

Hayes, whose bid for GOP Chair was vigorously opposed by many Tea Party groups who branded him part of the Republican establishment and "unstable on policy matters," was effusive in his thanks and praise for those in attendance in remarks that were more religious than political. And he claimed that he was an early Tea Partier, whatever that is.

Another speaker at the event was the virulent anti-immigrant activist William Gheen. One of the organizers ridiculed public schools. Another told the group assembled that the state lawmakers were "on probation," and would be watched carefully to make sure they live up to the Tea Party's demands of dismantling government, slashing budgets and lowering taxes.

Not much doubt about their agenda or their view of how the $3.7 billion state budget shortfall should be addressed, with massive budget cuts to reduce the size of the government they loathe and demonize.

Less than an hour later, Republican former Governor Jim Martin delivered the House prayer to open the session. He also talked to reporters while he was in town and said that the new Republican legislative leaders shouldn't rule out keeping the 2009 temporary tax increases on the books to handle part of the budget shortfall.

Those two starkly different scenes, a handful of extremists rallying in the rain and a former Governor preaching moderation on taxes highlight what might be the most important battle of this legislative session, the fight inside the Republican Party about how to handle the budget crisis.

Publicly, all the legislative leaders appear to be on the same page, that no taxes should be raised and that the 2009 tax increases should be allowed to expire. House Speaker Thom Tillis explicitly endorsed those views in his acceptance speech.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger told reporters the same thing all week. But Berger also appointed Senators from the moderate wing of the party to chair the budget committee. One of them, Senator Richard Stevens from Raleigh, is no Tea Partier. He is a former county manager known for his strong support for the university system.

He even voted for the Democratic budget last session, the one that Republicans criticized as irresponsible. One of his fellow budget co-chairs is Senator Pete Brunstetter, a corporate lawyer from Winston-Salem who is conservative, but no Tea Partier either.

You have to think that privately Stevens and Brunstetter and a host of other moderate Republicans in the House and Senate know the kind of damage that $3.7 billion in cuts will do to education and vital state services and would rather find a way to avoid it, even if it means keeping the temporary taxes on the books or phasing them out incrementally.

The defining moment of the session will come in a few months, when the key legislative leaders are sitting around the table trying to balance the budget, protect vital services, and keep the anti-government Tea Partiers that Hayes pandered to this week happy. They can't do all three.

They will have choose where they want to stand, in the conservative, thoughtful mainstream with a distinguished former Governor or the out the rain with the Moccasin Creek Minutemen. Stay tuned.

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