At first glance there didn’t seem to be a lot of news on the first day of the 2015 General Assembly session, nothing unexpected anyway. The House elected Rep. Tim Moore as Speaker and the Senate re-elected Senator Phil Berger to his third term as Senate President Pro Tem.
There were the usual promises of openness and bipartisanship even as Berger was taking full credit for the state’s economic recovery, as if North Carolina alone had bounced back from the Great Recession with no help from the national economy or the policies of the Obama Administration.
Moore broke with tradition by not making much of a policy speech after his election as Speaker, instead talking to House members in a folksy manner in mostly general terms about his hopes for the next two years.
Berger and Moore held the customary opening day news conference too, answering questions from reporters about their priorities for the session and how they will respond to proposals from Governor McCrory and outside groups about Medicaid, business incentives, teacher pay, local tax changes, and ethics laws.
There wasn’t much news in their answers either. Other than their illogical opposition to Medicaid expansion, neither Berger nor Moore took positions on most of the issues they were asked about, deferring instead to “we’ll have to wait and see” in most of their responses.
That’s actually the most important story of the opening day of the session, the lack of bold statements by legislative leaders that marked the first days of the sessions in 2011 and 2013.
Back then Berger and then Speaker Thom Tillis promised tax reform, education reform, opposition to gay marriage, rollback of environmental regulations, deep cuts to unemployment benefits and much more.
This year there were such no grand pronouncements or bold new initiatives, just a pledge to keep pushing the state in the same direction, as unwise and counterproductive as it may be.
If you are looking for a possible theme of the 2015 session, it’s that it is likely to be a defensive year, when the Republican majority tries to hold the line on the reactionary agenda they have enacted since they assumed power in 2011.
They didn’t want to expand Medicaid then and they don’t now, despite McCrory’s second thoughts. They keep defending their massive tax cuts for the wealthy even as the cost of the tax shift keeps growing as the budget shortfall increases, threatening education funding and further raises for teachers and state employees that legislative leaders have promised.
They are not sure about reinstating the historic tax credit program that the 2013 tax reform eliminated or how to replace revenue local governments lost with the elimination of the business privilege tax.
Rep. Paul Stam, re-elected Wednesday as Speaker Pro Tem, announced there would be a hearing about “religious freedom” when lawmakers return to town for work on January 28. That’s a code phrase for trying to figure out how to defend marriage discrimination in the face of federal court decisions overturning the state ban on same sex marriage passed in the 2012 primary.
Part of the largely defensive posture might be that lawmakers have already approved much of their hard-core agenda, from private school vouchers to fracking to Robin Hood in reverse tax plans that force cuts to the government they disdain.
Part of it might be that they realize the 2016 election is right around the corner and not only are their own political futures at stake, but Governor Pat McCrory faces a tough reelection battle too and will likely try to run as a thoughtful moderate he thinks the voters will support instead of the rubber stamp for the far-right ideologues he has been for the last two years.
That doesn’t mean that Berger and Moore and other legislative leaders are changing their stripes at all or that they will stop their assault on the fundamental institutions of the state like public schools, the university system, the social safety net, and what’s left of the regulatory structure that protects our land and air and water.
The assaults will no doubt continue. But they are more likely this year to slash and burn in small isolated ways, not massive sweeping changes that draw so much attention and public outrage. They understand their agenda does not enjoy widespread support and that they dodged a bullet in November, thanks to the nationalization of a state election in a favorable off-year electoral environment.
That’s why the session’s opening day may have seemed a little understated.
Berger and Moore are still determined to keep North Carolina marching to the Right and defending the anti-progress they have already made. They just won’t be so noisy about it.