Raleigh, N.C. — As Gov. Pat McCrory ponders the 38 bills he has yet to sign from the spring legislative session, he is contending with a microcosm of his political push and pull with lawmakers during the recently end legislative session.
Some are seemingly wins for the governor, such as a bill imposing a photo ID requirement on voters, an idea upon which McCrory campaigned.
Others present challenges. A measure aimed at banning North Carolina family courts from acknowledging Sharia Law is one of a number of measures that have drawn scorn from cable news networks and late-night comedians, distracting attention from high priorities.
And finally, McCrory will have to pick his way through a few measures that present a mixed bag. For example, a regulatory reform measure on his desk both delivers on a campaign promise to make government more efficient but carries provisions dealing with billboards and trash disposal that McCrory says are cause for concern.
"I want to first thank the legislative body and all their staff," McCrory said during an end-of-session news conference. "I know they're looking forward to going home, and I'm looking forward to them going home also, with all due respect."
To be sure, lawmakers handed McCrory some victories. Bills remaking how transportation funding is doled out across the state, creating a two-track academic and technical high school diploma system, redrawing the state personnel act to allow for easier reshaping of administrative agencies, and giving him permission to study ways to change the state's Medicaid system are all victories that he called for early in his term. A local fight in Raleigh over leasing the Dorothea Dix property is now in his hands after he convinced legislators to back off plans to redraw the deal to their liking.
Not surprisingly, Republican partisans score the session as a total win for the GOP governor.
"This was a great shakeout cruise for the General Assembly and the governor. They have to be pleased with the results, but I'm sure they're looking at ways they can improve," longtime Republican strategist Marc Rotterman said. Rotterman compared McCrory's approach to the game plan pursued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, when the then-newly-elected Republican pushed through packages of tax cuts and government reform efforts.
"He (McCrory) pushed through a lot of the agenda and tax cuts that he wanted early in his administration," Rotterman said, giving the governor high marks.
Other observers say that McCrory didn't so much muscle legislation through the legislature, but shaped what lawmakers were inclined to send him.
Shaping the content
Compared to their counterparts throughout the country, North Carolina governors wield modest powers. Vetoes from Tar Heel chief executives do not extend to items such as local bills that affect only one or two counties or constitutional amendments and there is no line-item veto of the budget. The state has nine other independently elected state officials who oversee large swaths of state government. And in a fight between the legislative and executive branch, lawmakers can pass laws telling his excellency what to do, but not the other way around.
John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political scientist, said McCrory was at his best shaping legislation and settling debates between the House and Senate. For example, the House leaders had long pushed to compensate survivors of North Carolina's Eugenics program that forcibly sterilized people until the 1970s. Senate leaders had stridently opposed compensation.
"It's pretty clear that McCrory put his thumb on the House side of that scale," Dinan said. Lawmakers included compensation in the final budget they sent to the governor. Sometimes, Dinan said, McCrory made his mark by convincing lawmakers not to pass a bill, such in the case of the Dix legislation or a bill that would have killed a tax credit for solar energy producers.
"He's taken credit for working with legislators to prevent those changes," Dinan said.
But critics, largely Democrats, say McCrory has been steamrolled by members of his own party in the House and Senate. They point out that early in his term, lawmakers pushed ahead with a bill blocking the expansion of Medicaid before the governor could weigh in. McCrory eventually embraced the measure after it was most of the way through the legislative process.
"I feel like anything McCrory got was something that the legislature wanted or they were throwing him a bone," said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant. "McCrory to a large degree was an after thought. He didn't get those bills through because he went over there and forced them through."
The Senate, led by President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, was particularly influential say Mills and other critics. While House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, had to deal with the twin headaches of preparing for a U.S. Senate campaign and keeping a sometimes fractious caucus of Republican representatives in line, Berger was free to stay on message and, according to many, become the most powerful Republican in state government, besting even the rookie governor.
"The Senate beat up on the guy with almost no response from him," Mills said.
He pointed to occasions when top Senate leaders were transparently hostile to the governor. Senate leaders, for example, refused to expedite appointments to the State Board of Education as McCrory had asked.
"I think it's been somewhat difficult for him (McCrory) to distinguish between a legislature and a city council," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said at the time.
Later in the session, as troubles over a tax reform measure erupted, Senate Finance Co-Chairman Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, blasted the governor, saying McCrory "did not provide the leadership or have the political backbone to fight the special-interest groups." Such harsh rhetoric aimed at a governor from one's own party is somewhat unusual, but drew no repercussions for Rucho.
However, even some Democrats give McCrory credit for handling an often prickly group of lawmakers.
"He was very, very diplomatic and discrete," Democratic political strategist Brad Crone said of McCrory. "You saw that in the discussion of and the framework of the final tax reform package. McCrory was effective in being the deal maker, but not necessarily the power broker."
During the final weeks of negotiations between the House and Senate, the hard bargaining over what the tax reform bill would look like was, in large measure, hammered out in meetings at the governor's mansion. Again, McCrory seemed to favor the House over the Senate in those negotiations.
That tax reform bill was one of the accomplishments McCrory touted when he said lawmakers helped him achieve 20 of the 22 goals he set out in his State of the State speech.
Scoring the session
McCrory never published a legislative agenda. When asked if there was a list of the 22 goals the governor had set for himself, his press staff said the list existed mainly as hand-scrawled notes. They did provide a typed and annotated version of that list, which was a mix of legislative and administrative accomplishments. For example, McCrory and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler helped create more refrigerated warehouse space at the Port of Wilmington for meat and produce exports, a goal that involved no legislative action.
Some of the legislative victories are partial. On Medicaid, for example, lawmakers gave McCrory permission to propose, but not implement, changes to the state health insurance system for the poor and disabled. On taxes, McCrory offered a grander vision both during the State of the State Speech and the campaign.
"But the fact of the matter is our current system is out of date. It was written in the 1930s. It no longer applies to the modern economy," McCrory said of the state's tax code in February. "We must have an economic and tax policy in North Carolina that is simple, that is competitive, that is modern and that is pro-growth."
Back then, lawmakers and the governor were aiming for a massive shift in the tax code that would radically cut personal and corporate income taxes in favor of a system that relies more heavily on sales taxes. Wake Forest's Dinan said the tax deal McCrory signed this summer doesn't hit that more ambitious mark, but does follow though on the minimum expectations McCrory set for himself during the campaign.
"You'd probably have to say that at a baseline there was an expectations you'd bring down the corporate and individual rates," Wake Forest's Dinan said. "From that baseline, the bill could be judged as having met those goals."
After spending much of the past week out of public view, McCrory is poised to begin dealing with the final bills on his desk this week. Although he is expected to sign most of the remaining legislation, McCrory has rattled the veto saber on a few bills, including measures loosening requirements for employers to use E-Verify systems for agriculture employers and requiring drug testing for welfare recipients.
"We have some major concerns, despite the good intent of this bill, about its fair application, and there could be some legal issues as well," McCrory said of the drug testing bill.
McCrory has also called out a sweeping regulatory reform bill that deals with dozens of provisions as potentially problematic. McCrory has suggested he could use executive orders to delay or alter how measures dealing with billboards and trash disposal are put in place.
Those kinds of actions could allow McCrory to further shape the debate over those bills, taking the lead in the absence of the lawmakers.
"I think he's got an opportunity here," said Mills, the Democratic consultant. "He's got to find some sort of message. He's got to figure out who he is."
Dinan pointed out that McCrory has already begun using his status to help sell the policies passed by the General Assembly, particularly when it comes to education.
Democrats have blasted the GOP-lead legislature for cutting spending on education compared with what budget writers said would be needed to maintain services. McCrory used a speech to the North Carolina Chamber to trumpet Republican education achievements and insist that the raw dollar amount North Carolina was spending had increased over the prior year. And he also used the speech to detail what he might do as governor, absent legislative help, to shift more funding to schools.
"It was striking that the legislature leaves session and he goes out talking about how more resources can be provided to education," Dinan said. "That's a signal that he wanted to set the agenda in a different way than it's been set by lawmakers."