Several WNC legislators take senior policy-making roles
North Carolina’s General Assembly got down to business last week, but only for a day.
After unanimously re-electing House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, the Legislature adjourned until Jan. 30, in part to give its large number of newcomers a chance to get up to speed.
In terms of tenure, the 2013-2014 North Carolina Legislature is one of the least experienced with more than half of its members either in their first or second term. The high turnover, driven in part by redistricting, has elevated a number of Western North Carolina lawmakers into senior policy-making roles, especially when it comes to developing the state budget.
Between now and the end of the month, though, the focus is assisting new members in learning legislative procedures, the budget process and the operations of the government they’ll oversee.
Although state House and Senate committees plan some informational meetings during the interim, under rules adopted on the opening day, no votes will be taken and no bills can be introduced.
After the session restarts, there should be plenty of both. With a governor and large majorities of the House and Senate in the same political party, Republicans are promising they’ll make good on the kind of sweeping changes talked about in their campaigns.
In his address last Wednesday to the Senate, Berger said that this year, state legislators will have to deliver on their promises.
“We must show our constituents, this state, and this country that there is a real difference between a Washington Republican and a North Carolina Republican,” he said. “North Carolina Republicans deliver.”
A few hours later, Tillis told the House that he was proud that the Legislature cut taxes last year and said the same thing ought to happen “every year hereafter.”
The challenge for the new session, he said, is to increase efficiency and reduce waste in government while finding ways to reduce taxes.
After his speech, Tillis handed out gavels to newly appointed committee chairs.
The formal process for the budget starts with a request by the governor to present his proposal to the Legislature, usually in mid-to-late February. At the same time, House and Senate appropriations committees will start to hold hearings. The chambers trade off responsibility for drafting the initial budget. This year it’s the Senate’s turn.
Rep. Roger West (R-Murphy), who was named co-chair of both the Environment Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources, said that with so many new faces, making sure there is ample time to review proposals and understand how things work will be important.
“That’s going to be a big issue this year,” said West, who is beginning his eighth term.
While that might slow the process down, the potential for better cooperation between the executive and legislative branches is likely to help the budget process move forward.
“I think there’ll be a lot more talking back and forth,” West said, “so when the budget comes over here it probably won’t be as out of whack.”
West said that doesn’t mean the traditional tensions between the two branches will go away altogether.
“The Legislature is a pretty independent bunch of people,” he said.
And while he said he agreed that Western North Carolina has seen a rise in legislative clout, the recent move by former Rep. Mitch Gillespie to the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources probably diminished that somewhat.
Gillespie, who represented Avery, McDowell and Mitchell counties for eight terms, was in line to become appropriations co-chair. He resigned from his seat on Jan. 6 to take on the role of assistant director of the agency he had oversight of while in the Legislature.
West said he expects Gillespie to play a key role in transforming the agency.
“Mitch is a very thorough guy,” he said. “He’ll do a great job over there.”
In addition to West, Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) was handed the gavel as a co-chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, a key role in a year in which charter school expansion and changes in teacher pay are on the agenda.
Other key changes include Rep. Tom Moffitt’s (R-Asheville) move to be chair of the Regulatory Reform Committee, which has been responsible for a number of changes to the state environmental rules and the regulatory process. The Asheville Republican also retains the chair of the Municipal Sewerage and Water System Committee, which issued last year’s report calling for the merger of the Asheville water system with its neighbors.
On the Senate side, Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville) retains several top appointments including the powerful Senate Rules Committee along with co-chairing the Senate appropriations committee on education and higher education. The opposition will once again be led by Asheville Democrat Sen. Martin Nesbitt, who was re-elected by his party’s caucus to be the minority leader.
Other key appropriations appointments for WNC senators include:
• Sen. Jim Davis (R-Franklin) — Co-chair, General Government and Information Technology;
• Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Spruce Pine) — Health and Human Services; and
• Sen. Dan Soucek (R-Boone) — Education/Higher Education.
While the Legislature organizes, Governor Pat McCrory, sworn in on Jan. 6, continues to staff up his administration. According to the governor, the task of getting the administration up and running has been complicated by the state of information systems in many departments. At his first press conference, on Jan. 7, the governor used the word “shambles” to describe the state’s information services systems. Lack of information and accounting in some departments, he said, was making it difficult to get an idea of where budgets stand.
Still, in his speech to the House last week, Tillis said he expects to pass a budget on time in June or even ahead of schedule. He reminded his colleagues that a drawn-out process at the state level makes it difficult for local governments and school systems to set their budgets. He added that the state Senate will have a much easier time drafting the initial budget proposal than the House did in the last session, which started with a significant deficit.
The governor noted in his press conference that this year is shaping up to be slightly ahead of projections. For now, both the Legislature and the governor are waiting for the end-of-year sales numbers. The next key markers after that — and the ones that typically drives the end-of-the-budget process — are the April income and quarterly tax receipts.
The process could be considerably different in future years depending on how far legislators go in changing the state’s tax code. There’s a strong consensus between McCrory and and the Legislature on lowering corporate and individual tax rates. But at least one plan being studied would eliminate those taxes altogether and would replace them, instead, with higher sales taxes that would be expanded to cover more currently untaxed services.