NC Republicans prepared for expanded power in 2013

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republicans complained for decades about how Democrats ran the state.

They argued that Democrats made state taxes too high and government bloated. They said Democrats failed to raise student achievement enough in the public schools. Campaign finance convictions of politicians such as Jim Black and Mike Easley made it easy for Republicans to label Democrats as corrupt.

Now the time for Republican griping is over.

In 2013, Republicans will control the executive and legislative branches simultaneously for the first time since 1870 — giving them largely unfettered power to retool state government. Any policies that are challenged in court could reach a state Supreme Court that's officially nonpartisan but composed of a Republican majority by voter registration.

As Pat McCrory becomes the first GOP governor in 20 years and Republicans hold nearly two-thirds of the General Assembly's seats, North Carolina's new majority party will carry the same double-edged sword Democrats held for years: Republicans are likely to get all the praise for successes and all the blame when things go wrong, at least through 2014.

"We're going to get a chance to see how their philosophy works," longtime Democratic consultant Gary Pearce said. "They say they can cut spending and improve education? Have at it. ... We'll be grading them in two years and four years."

GOP leaders say they will succeed at carrying out their agenda and improve the state's economy, which has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates.

"There's a mandate out there, (and) it's to fix the economy, put people back to work," said Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, the incoming House majority whip. "We're going to perform. We don't have the choice. We can't look and say it was Joe's fault over here or the Democrats' fault. It's all on us."

Republicans had majorities in both the House and Senate during 2011 and 2012, but they were held partially in check by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto stamp.

Now McCrory, who defeated Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton in November when Perdue declined to run for re-election, will be sworn in Saturday. Four days later, the General Assembly reconvenes with expanded veto-proof majorities in both chambers, and it returns a few weeks later to begin passing bills.

Despite early concord between McCrory and the legislature, the two are bound to differ on details of key legislation, as Democrats did before them. Social conservatives may butt heads with McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor identified as a social moderate. For example, when asked which additional abortion restrictions he would agree to sign into law, McCrory responded simply, "None."

"Be careful when you ask for unified government because there is no such thing as a unified political party," said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor. The key question, according to Bitzer, is whether McCrory or the Legislature — particularly Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the likely second-term Senate leader — will work together or compete to set the GOP agenda. The veto-proof majorities mean legislative leaders could exercise their will, even if McCrory disagrees.

GOP legislators and McCrory say they want to build consensus on an overhaul of the state's tax system and approve a plan to eliminate more than $2 billion in debt owed to the federal government for unemployment benefits. Approving a bill requiring photo identification to vote in person will be an early priority.

"I expect voter ID to be one of first substantive bills that will be sent to the governor," said Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, likely to be elected to a second term as House speaker. McCrory is a voter ID proponent. Legal challenges by Democrats and civil rights groups are expected.

Attempts to overhaul the state tax system have failed for decades because of a lack of political will or the inability to build consensus behind a plan requiring some to pay new or higher taxes.

"I campaigned on the issue that I would not vote to raise taxes or grow government, and I meant it and still do," said incoming Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston. While not speaking specifically to tax reform, Bumgardner added, "I think the Republican Party has a mandate not to raise taxes."

McCrory has committed himself only to reducing North Carolina's income tax rates — the highest in the Southeast — to rates in South Carolina and Virginia. He also said he won't seek to immediately increase the state's overall share of revenue.

"At least in the short term, there is no new money," he said in December.

On education, McCrory wants greater emphasis on vocational education and charter schools as well as paying teachers based on student performance. Many House Republicans are interested in creating incentives for companies that donate so young people can attend private schools.

McCrory turned some heads when he named conservative political activist Art Pope budget director — giving Democrats verbal ammunition to accuse McCrory of rewarding special interests with administration roles. McCrory says he never had a question of unethical conduct while mayor and will run a clean administration.

The 2014 U.S. Senate race also is likely to take shape in 2013. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has said she'll run for re-election. No Democratic incumbent from North Carolina has won re-election to the Senate since Sam Ervin in 1968. Tillis and Berger are considered among several potential Republican candidates.

Democrats will try to influence state government without the votes to block Republican proposals. They'll be looking for new leaders to emerge after the departure of dozens of veteran legislators. Democrats also meet in early February to choose a new chairman of the state party, which floundered in 2012 under a sexual harassment scandal and poor fundraising.

Incoming Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare, said he believes the electorate is more evenly divided than the new GOP-controlled government may indicate. He's hoping the GOP will agree to work with Democrats to approve broadly supported legislation.

"I'm willing, happy and able to work with anybody that comes along," Tine said, "but it won't be up to me."

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