Raleigh, N.C. — When Gov. Pat McCrory takes the podium during his second State of the State address Wednesday night, lawmakers and analysts expect jobs to be, well, Job One.
"In the meetings that I've had with him, that's what we're talking about," said House Speaker Tim Moore. "We're not talking about anything else. The governor seems to be genuinely concerned about the state of the economy and really wanting to send forth ideas to deal with that."
Governors have been giving the legislature some sort of every-other-year update on how the government is doing since at least the early 19th century, and gubernatorial addresses go back to colonial times, according to Steve Case, a librarian a the State Library of North Carolina. The first governor to brand his address as a "State of the State" was Luther Hodges in the 1950s, Case said.Today, the occasion seems to have many of the trappings of the president's State of the Union address, although on a smaller scale. Members of the House and Senate, as well as leaders from McCrory's cabinet and the judiciary, will gather in the House chambers at 7 p.m. WRAL-TV and WRAL.com will carry the speech live.
"I'm almost too new to guess," said first-term Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake. "I'm certain words like education and Medicaid are going to pop out."
For a new guy, those aren't bad guesses.
Since the beginning of his term, McCrory has talked about the need to get North Carolina colleges and universities to match what they're teaching to the needs of the business community, rhetoric that has reappeared in several of his recent public appearances. As well, McCrory has talked about the need to cut down on state-mandated tests.
As for Medicaid, that might be something of an in-your-face moment for McCrory. He has hinted that he might want to expand Medicaid as allowed by the federal Affordable Care Act, what some people call "Obamacare." In particular, he has talked about crafting a solution particular to North Carolina. Such a proposal would match up with other states, such as Indiana, that have taken federal funding for Medicaid expansion but not simply expanded their existing program to people who earn between 100 percent and 138 percent of poverty.
But top lawmakers like Moore, R-Cleveland, have said they aren't interested in expansion. McCrory and lawmakers have also clashed over the best structure for the North Carolina Medicaid system, an obvious sore spot despite the fact that both McCrory and the legislative majorities are Republican.
The State of the State would be a big stage upon which to air those disagreements.
"It's been known to happen and would not be a surprise," said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. If you're the governor, he said, "You will be in polite company, but you're going to tell them what you really think."
Jobs to take center stage
Those tuning in to the broadcast should not expect to hear McCrory addressing items such as religious freedom, gay marriage or abortion, topics that came up early in the legislative session.
"I can't imagine him mentioning social issues," said Thom Little, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an expert on state legislatures.
McCrory, he said, is at his heart a "old-fashioned, boardroom Republican" more concerned with business than Bibles. The State of the State gives him what amounts to his first big stage of the 2016 election cycle, not a place to court controversy, Little said.
So what does he expect to hear?
"One thing that does concern him (McCrory) is transportation infrastructure," Little said.
McCrory has talked about the need to issue a big bond package, perhaps as large as $1.2 billion, to pay for road and bridge repairs as well as improvements to rail and the state's ports.
"If those things aren't addressed, it will affect the state's economy. That's how I think he will sell that," Little said.
Although legislative leaders have been loathe to issue new debt in the past six years, business leaders such as the North Carolina Chamber have begun pushing the state to improve its transportation network, and State Treasurer Janet Cowell issued a report this week saying that North Carolina can borrow a total of $4.5 billion over the next five years.
Wednesday night's speech will give McCrory a chance to take ownership of that issue.
"I'm really excited to hear about the great work the governor is doing on behalf of the historic tax credit," said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.
That tax credit, which helps developers refurbish aging factory buildings, expired on Jan. 1 but has been the subject of intense campaigning by city leaders statewide, who say it is critical to reviving urban centers.
On Monday, Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Klutz said that McCrory would call on lawmakers to authorize a new, slimmed down tax credit.
In addition to that credit, Moore said that lawmakers and McCrory have been talking about a broader economic development measure that would address the governor's concerns about not having enough job recruiting tools.
"I think you'll see some modifications to tax law," Moore said, saying that he didn't want to talk about specifics.
However, he did say that McCrory would likely propose additional funding for and modifications to incentive programs such as the Job Development Investment Grant and the One North Carolina Fund, which give grants to companies that choose to relocate or expand in North Carolina.
"I think the governor will do a good job laying out his vision, which is very similar to what we're looking at in the House and in the Senate as well," Moore said.
Bitzer said viewers should keep an ear out for something that the governor hasn't yet telegraphed in the run up to the speech. .
"There's typically always a surprise they want to hold in their back pocket until that night," he said.