Predicting what politicians will do yields more hits than misses in 2015
Posted December 27, 2015
Updated December 28, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — The problem with making predictions are, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the unknown unknowns. Predictions are basically educated guesses based on the available data, a gut feel for how things work and a reasonable faith that past performance offers some guidance for the future.
Then reality settles in, and those predictions you thought were rock-solid locks just look silly with 20-20 hindsight. Meanwhile, the things you get right sometimes come about in ways nobody expected.
JANUARY: In late 2014, there was much discussion over who would pay of the clean up of coal ash pits around the state like the one that spilled into the Dan River. A moratorium on raising customer costs to pay for the cleanup expired this year, and there was speculation as to whether lawmakers would extend that or leave it to the Utilities Commission. Last year's column predicted the General Assembly would leave this to the commission.
HOW I DID: I got this one right. While there were several tweaks to the state's coal ash cleanup laws, lawmakers did not mess with the moratorium.
FEBRUARY: This was the first year that schools received A-through-F letter grades under a new system based on test scores and student growth. Last year's predictions column said the grades would "touch off a firestorm of stories about the failing or near-failing grades somewhere around half of North Carolina's schools will receive. Public school officials will say the grades don't properly account for student growth, while critics will use the grades to push for more charter schools and voucher funding for low-income students who want to attend private school."
HOW I DID: Check and check.
Outcry was broad enough that lawmakers softened the new grading scale for this year and next, and lawmakers did move to expand the amount of money they put into vouchers and pushed a bill, which didn't quite pass, to force school districts to share more money with charter schools.
MARCH: U.S. Sen. Richard Burr faces re-election next year, and I said that the Democratic nomination fight would feature former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat who was unseated by Sen. Thom Tillis in 2014. Specifically, I was looking for a battle between "a relatively young, relatively unknown politician backed by an enthusiastic, if underfunded, progressive wing of the party versus Hagan, who will be the choice of a risk-adverse D.C. establishment that sees a good chance for putting Republicans on the defensive nationally and grabbing back control of the Senate."
HOW I DID: Not well.
While the D.C.-based Democratic brain trust did recruit Hagan, she said no. The battle for the Democratic nomination appears to be a contest between former state Rep. Deborah Ross, who is relatively unknown outside of her home turf of Wake County and relatively progressive compared to the rest of her party, Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey and Durham businessman Kevin Griffin.
APRIL: Back in December 2014, the state's tax collections were running behind predictions, and lawmakers were hoping their annual "April surprise" wouldn't be the kind that caused them to cut the budget. "Given that we're dealing with a revenue picture for a $20 billion budget using a relatively untested set of tax inputs, the biggest surprise of all will be that last year's revenue projections turn out to be roughly on target, allowing budget construction to proceed apace."
HOW I DID: Well, the tax revenue projections were off, just not in the deficit direction. Lawmakers ended up having more money to work with than expected.
As a side note on this item, last year's predictions column opined, "McCrory will push for and get much of his transportation rebuilding program, but lawmakers will structure it in such a way that the costs don't start to hit home until 2016 or 2017." Eh, sort of. Budget writers plowed more money into transportation, but not through a bond. Rather, they refocused money from the Highway Trust Fund on road repairs and expansions.
MAY: At the end of 2014, rumors abounded that North Carolina was in the running to lure a manufacturing plant. "If North Carolina truly is in the running for a big-name automaker, lawmakers will get in gear to pass the necessary incentive package. The only question will be whether they can move quickly enough to close the deal after battling over, and ultimately failing to pass, a major incentive bill last summer," last year's column said, adding, "Our crystal ball says the future is hazy on that point."
HOW I DID: No auto plant emerged from the haze, but lawmakers did recharge and expand the state's economic development programs. They also created a "super-sized" Job Development Investment Grant program in case North Carolina ever is in the running for a big manufacturing plant.
JUNE: Reforming Medicaid has been one of the biggest issues in state government over the past few years. In particular, Republican lawmakers have been intent on controlling costs. "House and Senate leaders will agree to punt the issue to a special session or kick it around in committees until the May 2016 legislative short session," I predicted.
HOW I DID: Nope. Lawmakers actually got together and passed a compromise Medicaid bill.
JULY: "Sometime this summer, various book tours, listening tours and broken-down tour buses will begin bringing Republican and Democratic presidential contenders to North Carolina," I wrote toward the end of last year. A change in North Carolina's presidential primary date to March, my thinking went, would be catnip for contenders.
HOW I DID: Yup. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and others have already visited the state, with more poised to head our way in the new year.
AUGUST: "McCrory will haul out the veto stamp again," I predicted. Spilling some red ink, I thought, would be one way for the governor to show his independence from the General Assembly.
HOW I DID: Right times two. McCrory rejected a bill that allows magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex and other marriages and a measure that curbed investigations of private businesses. On both measures, the General Assembly overrode McCrory's objections, and the measure are now law.
SEPTEMBER: After the rancor of 2014, I thought President Obama and Congress might get it together and do some lawmaking. "It seems possible that an immigration deal and a new budget are within reach, even for a president and congressional leaders who will never be BFFs."
HOW I DID: Ha! This one was laughably off. There were no grand bargains, and rancor continued to be the order of the day. While they did craft a two-year budget deal, it took the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, regarded as too soft on Obama by conservative House Republicans, to get it.
OCTOBER: "Given that both North Carolina's U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races are expected to be close and hard-fought, expect the first ads of the 2016 campaigns to be on the air before trick-or-treaters hit the bricks. Between the two races, North Carolina will easily tally up more than $1 million in spending before New Year's Day," I wrote.
HOW I DID: Right on both counts. Ads that amounted to the first salvo of the 2016 air war in the race for governor aired the week before Halloween. And spending on campaign-style ads for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races piled up more than $1 million in spending before Thanksgiving.
NOVEMBER: "At some point this year, regulators will approve the first permit to drill for natural gas via hydraulic fracturing," I said.
HOW I DID: Well, frack.
The ongoing litigation between McCrory and lawmakers over appointments to various boards and commissions has put the creation of a new commission to oversee drilling permits on hold. As a result, the Division of Environment Quality reports no applications for drilling have been received.
DECEMBER: "Sometime around Christmas 2015, yours truly will be sitting at his desk pounding out another column detailing all the predictions he got wrong in his predictions column from the year before."
HOW I DID: Well, I've had worse years.
FOR THE YEAR: Not withstanding the lack of confidence betrayed by December's prediction, five of these were pretty much on the nose – January, February, July, August and October. Four were just dead wrong, including March's U.S. Senate forecast, June's Medicaid gloom and doom, September's Pollyanna prediction of federal cooperation and November's drilling dud. As for April's state budget prediction and May's economic development forecast, I'll argue for half credit. That leaves me batting somewhere better than .500, but not by much.