Raleigh, N.C. — The General Assembly opened its 2013 session Wednesday amid pomp, with some lawmakers sporting boutonniéres, family members on the House and Senate floors and Gov. Pat McCrory joining a crowded gallery.
After senators and representatives were sworn into office, the House and Senate and their respective Republican and Democratic caucuses quickly named their leaders.
Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, was elected by acclamation to his second term as Senate president pro tem, as was Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, as House speaker.
They immediately set the GOP agenda for the year as one of tax reform, cutting government regulations and reshaping North Carolina's public schools.
"Today, we renew the fight for reform that started two years ago," Berger said in brief remarks. "We have the opportunity to set sweeping policies to change the direction of North Carolina and to make a real and lasting difference."
Republican lawmakers wore red as a show of their strength in both chambers – they picked up two Senate seats and nine House seats in November and now hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Democrats know they're far outnumbered, declining to even offer a candidate for either Senate president pro tem or House speaker.
Still, Tillis predicted that this session would be less partisan than the last two years.
House Minority Leader Larry Hall said Democrats will work with Republicans when possible, but they don't plan to disappear.
"The statement we're saying is, we're in this with you for the good of the people of North Carolina. We're going to step down that road with you as long as you act in the best interests, and whenever you get off that path, we will be there," said Hall, D-Durham.
Berger called the state tax code "one of single greatest roadblocks to our recovery," and he said government bureaucracy is stifling business growth. He also targeted teachers in saying that North Carolina needs to eliminate "failing schools."
"While we are committed to rewarding and recognizing our best teachers, no teacher should be guaranteed a job if they fail in their responsibility to educate our children," he said. "Every month, every week, every day that we accept mediocrity, another child slips through the cracks."
Lawmakers should always consider struggling families when crafting legislation, Berger said, adding that he and his Republican colleagues in the General Assembly would set an example for their GOP counterparts in Washington, D.C.
"North Carolina Republicans deliver. We've kept our word, and we act on the promises we've made," he said.
A few hours later in the House, Tillis compared North Carolina to a business and said the state needs to do a better job to be competitive.
"There's substantial room for improvement in North Carolina, and we simply must commit to advancing an agenda that will transform our business – our state – with the goal of being the very best at everything we do," he said.
He said North Carolina would work to retain its status as "the least unionized state," and like Berger, he called for broad-based tax and regulatory reform and "meaningful change" in public education.
"What we have to do is get rid of the lists and lists of regulations, controls and other impediments that just get in the way of teaching," he said.
Tillis promised leaner budgets that would be delivered early enough so counties and school districts could know what state funding they would have as they set their own spending plans.
"We must pass budgets that put the interests of taxpayers ahead of the interests of those who want to expand the scope and the cost of government," he said.
Both chambers also adopted new rules for the legislative session. Among them is one the bars lobbyists from the Senate floor for 15 minutes after each session to allow a "cooling down" period.
House Democrats balked at moving the deadline for bills to pass one chamber from April to May 16 and to cap the number of bills any individual lawmaker can introduce at 10, but the GOP majority approved them along with other rules.
After the one-day organizational session, the General Assembly recessed until Jan. 30, giving leaders three weeks to set up legislative committees so lawmakers can begin handling bills when they return to Raleigh.
"Everybody's raring to go," Berger said. "In fact, I think there's some disappointment that we're not coming back until the 30th to really start doing things."
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who took his oath of office Monday so he could preside over the Senate, noted that the Legislative Building is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. An architect by trade, he said that the building opened in a time of turmoil for the state and nation and that lawmakers face a similar time of change now.
"We have many challenges that face us in North Carolina in 2013, but as designers of North Carolina's future, we will tackle those challenges with boldness and courage," Forest said. "We will build a strong foundation for our future and design a North Carolina that our children and our grandchildren can be proud of."