Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters Monday that he is still hoping a tax reform bill will pass before the end of the legislative session, but he won't accept a measure that makes it impossible to operate state government.
"I'd rather have no bill than a bad bill," McCrory said during a news conference to mark his six-month anniversary in office.
During the news conference, he tackled a number of issues, including abortion legislation moving through the General Assembly, the effect of regular protests on North Carolina's image and his relationship with the state Senate.
Budget and taxes
Lawmakers are negotiating a bill that would rewrite the state's tax code as they try settle on a new budget for the coming year. The tax bill has held up consideration of the budget bill because lawmakers need to know how much money they'll have to spend before they decide how to spend it.
"We are very close to possibly getting tax reform done," McCrory said. "However, as in any discussion, there are points of contention."
Some of those points involve how to change the state's income and corporate tax structures. But at a more basic level, the Senate, House and governor do not agree on how much money the tax plan should raise over the next two years and whether projections beyond two years are reliable.
"My goal is to ensure that we have sufficient revenue to meet our budget needs that I presented to the House and Senate during the next years. If that is not met, then I'm going to have serious concerns about the bill," McCrory said.
The House and Senate are still working on a tax bill. Currently, the House is considering whether to accept a Senate proposal or to send the measure to a conference committee to work out differences.
Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, a senior budget writer in the Senate, said he believes the tax bill would be worked out this week.
"I think we'll know more by the middle of this week," Brunstetter said. "With the tax reform package over there for concurrence, we're either going to get a number that everybody agrees on and we can start the budget process, or we're going to find that tax reform may not be going anywhere, at which point we're back to a standard budget process."
One of the finest lines McCrory attempted to walk Monday involved House Bill 695, a measure that would place multiple regulations on clinics that provide abortion. Opponents of the bill say it is an attempt to restrict access to what is now a legal procedure.
During his 2012 campaign for office, McCrory told reporters that he would not sign any bill that would further restrict access to abortions. Asked about that statement Monday, McCrory picked carefully through the issue.
"There is a fine line between safety measures and restrictions. Those two lines should not be confused," McCrory said. "I'm very concerned about our responsibility to ensure the health of women is protected."
"We're going to make sure that we enforce existing laws," he said. "I'm also going to make sure any new laws added to the books received the scrutiny, review and feedback they deserve."
McCrory was critical of the state Senate last week when lawmakers used a late-day committee meeting Tuesday to tack an abortion measure onto a bill dealing with the application of foreign law in North Carolina family courts.
But he did not state definitively whether he would veto the measure or not.
"I think parts of the bill, personally, clearly deal with safety and help protect these women," McCrory said. "But I also see there are parts of the bill that could clearly cross that line where they are adding further restrictions to access, and I think that's where we need further discussion and further debate."
He said that the abortion issue is more complex than either abortion rights or anti-abortion advocates were allowing for in the public debate.
McCrory added that he does not think the state has enough inspectors to examine health facilities of all kinds, including abortion clinics.
Relationship with lawmakers steady
Given some testy exchanges on budget and taxes, as well as the Senate failing to provide notice of major bills like the abortion measure, McCrory was asked whether his relationship with top lawmakers – especially in the Senate – has grown contentious.
"We don't always agree on the process," he said. "There's natural conflict between different branches of government."
Similar breaches erupted among Democratic lawmakers when they controlled the governor's mansion and the legislature, McCrory pointed out.
"It's a very natural conflict, but I think we're going to resolve our differences," he said.
Protests a 'peripheral' issue
During a separate meeting with reporters Monday, Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said that weekly protests at the legislature and related unfavorable news coverage are making it hard to sell the state to companies looking to relocate.
Decker later said she was talking about issues revolving around tax reform and the uncertainty over whether state incentive programs would continue.
"That's what 90 percent of the questions have been around," she said later in the day. ""I have not gotten specific questions around the unemployment questions or the protests on Monday," she said.
McCrory downplayed concerns that media coverage could be adversely affecting CEO decisions.
"The state of Wisconsin went through much more serious issues than this, and their unemployment rate is a good bit lower than North Carolina's," he said. "The state of California continues to be in total turmoil, and its financial turmoil. I think the major issue for businesses now is, 'Is your state stable financially, and do you have a quality workforce?'
"I think these other peripheral issues, which are still important, aren't as important to employers," he said. "When I meet with employers, they want to know if are you financially secure and can you find quality employees to do the job. ... We're not the only state going through difficult legislative process."
Asked what he considered "a peripheral issue," McCrory said he needed more clarification of what protesters were upset about.
"You'll have to clarify which items they're protesting. There are many different items they're protesting," he said. "I've met with many protesters. There are many, many different issues, many different issues. Even among themselves, I'm not sure that all the protesters agree. They're not a monolithic group that's protesting policies. There are many, many different groups, which I welcome.
"We've seen that among my own brethren in my own party. Not everyone agrees on every issue," McCrory said, making a joke about the sometimes raucous nature of debates at the General Assembly.
McCrory added that he was pleased that the protests have remained non-violent and that he believes police are doing the right thing by arresting the protesters who violate building rules.
"If you don't arrest them, then you can't get the work of government done," he said. "I believe, if people break the law, then they should be arrested. I would prefer them not be arrested. We've had a lot of successful protests in Raleigh. Heck, I've protested before here in Raleigh. The tea party has protested before here in Raleigh. But they weren't blocking business from being done."
McCrory also took issue with the "Moral Monday" named used by the NAACP to brand the protests.
"We should have respectful differences," he said. "But to say one's moral, which gives the (implication) that the other is immoral on a political dispute or a political difference, is quite misleading. I respectfully disagree with some of those who are protesting against me. But from that disagreement I'm not judging them on their personal characteristics or values. I say that to both the right and the left."