Raleigh, N.C. — Last week in this space, your humble @NCCapitol blogger demonstrated a pretty clear lack of predictive power by pointing out the things last year's state politics forecasting column got wrong. So, what did the boss-lady say once that bit of self-flagellation was filed?
"I assume you will be looking ahead to 2015 as well?"
Insanity is repeating the same action over again and expecting a different outcome, and journalism is a crazy business.
Making predictions about what will occupy our civic attention is perilous because the universe tends to scoff at everyone's tidy little plans, whether they be journalists or governors. This time last year, hardly anyone in state government was talking about coal ash. Following the Feb. 2 Dan River spill, the General Assembly sprinted to pass a law that ended up being stronger than federal regulations, and Gov. Pat McCrory is suing the legislature over the new Coal Ash Management Commission.
You just never know where the next corrugated pipe containing a flood of news is going to bust.
All of that said, here are 12 thoughts, guesses and bits of speculation about 2015 – one for each month. Much of this is informed by the theory that past performance in civic life does a pretty good job predicting the future, especially when you're dealing with a gerrymandered legislative district. After all, doing the same thing over again to achieve a different outcome is crazy, but these are politicians we're talking about.
January: The biggest news on the coal ash front will come from McCrory and lawmakers wrangling over appointments to the Coal Ash Management Commission. A moratorium that keeps Duke Energy from seeking a power rate increase for costs related to capping or cleaning up its coal ash pits throughout the state expires in mid-January, but lawmakers won't extend it. Rather, they will leave it to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to decide who picks up the tab.
February: The Department of Public Instruction will issue A through F grades for all public schools for the first time on Feb. 5, which will 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.
Related: The perception of struggling schools will give lawmakers a reason to engage with the controversy over Advanced Placement U.S. History exams as well as the work going on as a result of the kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really repeal of Common Core academic standards.
March: The political chattering class will begin asking the "Who will challenge Sen. Richard Burr" question in earnest by March. With Attorney General Roy Cooper all but committed to taking on McCrory in 2016, early attention will focus on outgoing Sen. Kay Hagan, who lost her re-election bit to state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
As summer arrives, we'll see a bunch of anonymously sourced stories about moves Hagan may or may not be making to position herself for a comeback, as Washington, D.C.-based operatives check out other potential newcomers to challenge Burr, a former U.S. House member finishing up his second term in the Senate. The realities of modern campaigning will require whoever is going to get into the race to start a campaign committee and begin compiling a war chest by Thanksgiving.
By December, the 2016 Democratic primary will be setting up as a contest 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.
April: Budget writers at the General Assembly hold their collective breath for much of the month, hoping for good news out of April tax collections. North Carolina closed 2014 reporting that revenue was $190 million below estimates following the 2013-14 tax reform effort. Lack of tax revenue could put a crimp in stated plans for a second round of teacher pay raises, a big round of transportation funding and funding for the courts.
The wait for an annual "April surprise" is something of a ritual at the legislature. The news following Tax Day sometimes turns out to be an unexpected windfall, while other years brings news that forces budget writers to head back to the drawing board. 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.
Related: 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.
May: North Carolina leaders have been hinting that some big economic development fish have been nibbling around North Carolina for months now, including the potential of an auto manufacturer coming to the state. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that Mercedes-Benz was considering moving its U.S. headquarters to either Georgia or North Carolina. 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.
Our crystal ball says the future is hazy on that point.
June: Lawmakers will continue to wrassle over North Carolina's $14 billion Medicaid health insurance system for the poor and disabled, once again setting it on a track to being a major budget sticking point. The battle between those who want to take time to develop home-grown accountable care organizations to manage Medicaid patients and those who want to bring in larger managed care companies will present one of the major policy donnybrooks of the session, bringing medical providers who sat on the sidelines of the first two years of this fray into the battle. After glowering at each other over the impasse once again, and despite pressure from McCrory to push forward with reform, 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.
Related: Mid-year legislative campaign reports filed in July show an uptick in giving by medical and health insurance interests.
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. Under current law and barring changes by our neighbors to the south, Tar Heels will go to the polls in our presidential primary the week after South Carolina holds its primary in 2016, making North Carolina a mid-February, delegate-rich prize for those candidates looking to cement front-runner status or who may struggle out of the gate in Iowa and New Hampshire. Look for Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others to trod the barbecue byways in advance of primary season.
August: McCrory will haul out the veto stamp again, but this one may leave a mark. The most likely veto target is a bill that he sees as trampling on his constitutional prerogatives as governor. The governor's objection to the Coal Ash Management Commission is that it takes power out of his hands, and he may pick a fight if legislative Republicans pass another such measure.
It's also possible he could burnish his credentials as a political moderate in advance of the 2016 campaign by taking on a bill viewed as veering to the political right, particularly one dealing with abortion or other hot-button topics.
Related: Differences over separation of powers, tax policy and Medicaid will set the McCrory administration and the state Senate at odds with each other once again.
September: And now for the Pollyanna portion of the program. Sept. 30 marks the end of the federal fiscal year. In 2013, around that same time, North Carolina and the rest of the states were sweating out the impact of a partial federal shutdown, as the president and House Republicans battled over the federal budget. While there is a spending bill in place for 2015, big policy differences over immigration and other issues are likely to draw clear divisions between the administration and Republicans who now control both the House and the Senate. That's a recipe for disaster, right?
Maybe not. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat like Obama, faced a decidedly Republican Congress after the 1994 elections, and 1995 saw a federal shutdown. But a year later, Congress passed, and the president signed, a welfare reform bill, marking a signature political achievement for both sides. With that bit of history as example, 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. Of course, given the high-strung state of D.C. rhetoric and take-no-prisoners attitude of even state-level political discourse, this prediction could provide us with a heaping plate of crow come December 2015.
October: What's scarier than Halloween without candy? How about the return of political ads? The first ads of the 2014 U.S. Senate election hit just before Halloween in 2013. 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. That will just be a warm-up for a year that will send people running to Netflix just to escape the political ads.
November: At some point this year, regulators will approve the first permit to drill for natural gas via hydraulic fracturing. Regulators are in the process of finishing up rules to govern the industry, most of which should become final this spring. Interest won't come fast and furious due to low energy prices in the early part of the year, but at least one company will take the risk that there's gas in the state's Central Piedmont shale.
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. Pretty sure I'm nailing this one, though.
The @NCCapitol team will be back to covering news as it actually happens in the New Year.