RALEIGH, N.C. — The General Assembly returned to work Wednesday, two months after a seismic shift in North Carolina politics that brought Republicans into power in both chambers.
Legislators arrived to face painful budget choices and redraw district boundaries that could aid the GOP while trying to retain their new advantage for another decade.
The legislature opened its two-year session at noon with Republicans holding an 11-seat advantage in the Senate and 16 in the House, ending Democratic control of one or both chambers continuously since 1898.
"This is a historic moment for this body and our state, but this is just a moment," said Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who was quickly elected as the chamber's president pro tempore.
"History will judge us based on the substance of this session, not this moment," Berger said.
In the House, Republican Rep. Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County had to withstand a challenge from Democratic Rep. Joe Hackney of Orange County, the incumbent House speaker, for the speakership.
"I like bringing the best out of people and making them be as successful as they want to be," Tillis said. "It's what I did at Price Waterhouse, at IBM and that's what I hope to do, what I will do here at the legislature."
Tillis' previous political experience included two years as a town commissioner.
"We've got people in the caucus that have forgotten more than I'll ever learn," he said.
Six Democrats joined all 68 Republicans in voting for Tillis.
"It's just like a dream come true," said Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph, the longest-serving Republican in the General Assembly.
"My first term, in 1977, I was one of six Republicans in the House, and there were two Republican state senators," Brubaker said. "To see both chambers becoming Republican majority, I never thought I'd live to see that day, but it's here."
Historic occasion brings crowds
Berger's ascendancy to Senate president pro tem ended a record 18 years of power for Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who resigned Tuesday from the Senate.
"I've garnered a good bit of experience over a number of years," said Berger, who is in his sixth-term.
Tillis, who in only his third House term, rose the ladder quickly as minority whip to help knock more than a dozen Democrats out of office on Election Day 2010.
Tillis handed out red wristbands with the words "Jobs" and "Economy" on them to all House members. He said the message was to remind them of the priority for the legislative session.
"Any time you find yourself focused on something other than that," he said, "snap that band until the feeling goes away because we have to remain focused."
The galleries in the House and Senate were standing-room only on Wednesday, as people gathered to watch history in the making.
"I just felt I had to be here today. I wouldn't have been anywhere else today. This is a day that's never been in my lifetime," spectator Donna Lay said.
Lawmakers rented large flat-screen televisions and placed them throughout the building so that people who couldn't get into the gallery could still watch the opening-day ceremonies.
"When you get to be 76 years old, you're cramming for finals. There's not a whole lot of time on the other end. But I have children and grandchildren, and I have a great deal of interest," spectator Buzz Cayden said.
Special-interest groups were among the crowds. Educators wore red as a sign of opposition to expected cuts to the K-12 budget, and a couple dozen members of the tea party staged a rally outside the Legislative Building to support GOP plans to cut state spending.
Balancing budget will be tough
Lawmakers face the difficult task this year of closing a budget gap for the third straight year, the result of tax collections slow to rebound in the recovery from a recession that keeps the state unemployment rate close to 10 percent.
The projected shortfall for the year starting July 1 is $3.7 billion – nearly 20 percent of the current year's budget and a size that members of both parties and Gov. Beverly Perdue have said will probably lead to state employee or teacher job layoffs and cuts to services.
"State government and state employees will have to do more with less as we work to right-size state government," Berger said. "It's not going to be easy, but streamlining state government will pay dividends in the long run."
Federal stimulus money has dried up, and Republican lawmakers pledged in the fall campaign not to extend a pair of temporary tax increases approved by the Democratic-led legislature and Perdue in 2009.
"I believe government needs to be as small as possible to provide for people's safety, to provide for education and to provide for infrastructure – and not much else," Tillis said.
Perdue said Tuesday she's unsure if her budget proposal to the legislature will extend or sunset the taxes. But in the new reality at the Legislative Building, the views of a Democratic governor matter less. Republicans are within four votes of having the luxury to send veto-proof legislation to Perdue's desk.
Still, Perdue and Republicans leaders are cautiously optimistic about working on some issues.
"It would be very disingenuous of any of us before the new session even starts to say there are these things that I'm absolutely going to veto," the governor said Tuesday.
One thing she can't veto are bills that change the boundaries of legislative and congressional district boundaries.
GOP leaders in charge of the maps say they'll draw fair districts, but Democrats in charge of the boundaries for decades aren't so sure. Republicans won't seek to place themselves in a worse position, which should help them at navigating toward a majority through 2020.
With Wednesday's elections and ceremonies out of the way, Republicans say they will soon get to work carrying out their platform. House Majority Leader Paul Stam said a judiciary committee would meet Thursday to consider a bill designed to prevent North Carolina residents from being penalized for not obtaining health insurance, a requirement of the year-old national health care overhaul.