Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory is frustrated with the General Assembly, and the feeling was more than mutual this week.
Although Republicans control both the Executive Mansion and the legislature, the two branches of government don't always appear to be sprouting from the same ideological tree. All this week, the two sides have exchanged strongly, and at times hostilely, worded missives over court rulings and key legislation.
One highlight: the governor suggesting lawmakers need to "stay in their lane" rather than meddle in the affairs of local governments, as with a controversial Wake County commissioners redistricting bill.
"Well, here at the legislature at times, we have some legislators who also want to be mayor and city councilman and airport director and sometimes water directors," McCrory said, getting a laugh from the crowd of city officials he was speaking to Wednesday.
Lawmakers, he said, can talk about or pass legislation on any number of things, "but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do."
Of course, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and other GOP legislative leaders had their own "stay in your lane" message for the governor after McCrory scored a first-round victory in his lawsuit challenging the validity of General Assembly appointments to boards and commissions controlling executive branch functions, such as the Coal Ash Management Commission. If appointments are a problem, they reasoned, then the legislature should probably go slow on appointing McCrory's appointments to head the State Bureau of Investigation and other executive branch agencies.
Throw in some nasty exchanges over economic development, and this hasn't exactly been a week of comity for Raleigh Republicans.
"I will say, it's been a particularly bumpy week for all parties," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "I hope with a weekend behind us we can get back and get some things accomplished next week."
Tension nothing new
In an interview, McCrory said he wasn't concerned about the legislature holding up his appointments. His nominees for banking commissioner and SBI director are already serving in those posts, he said. Still, it's unusual to see lawmakers refuse to carry out confirmations even as they're making their own appointments to panels such as the UNC Board of Governors.
"In talking to both Gov. (Jim) Martin and Gov. (Jim) Hunt, this is not the first time this kind of issue has arisen," McCrory said of his lawsuit.
Asked if ill feelings over the commissions lawsuit could spill over into other areas of governance, he said, "It shouldn't...That's what mature leadership is all about – respecting disagreement but continuing on with the job you were elected to do."
Recent Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue didn't always see eye-to-eye with Democrats who controlled the legislature during their terms, and it came as no surprise that Perdue and newly empowered GOP leaders traded vetoes and veto overrides during the last two years of her term.
When McCrory was elected in 2012, some had the expectation that a state government unified under a single party would work hand-in-glove. But McCrory has vetoed three bills in three years, seeing two of those over-ridden. Lawmakers, particularly senators, have regularly harangued cabinet secretaries over McCrory administration policies when they've testified before committees about struggles in Medicaid or the need for new economic development incentives.
This week, the blows were traded directly.
"It sure seems new to me, or maybe the degree of it seems new to me," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political consultant. "I reckon governors always fought with lawmakers."
Wrenn harkened back to Hunt, a Democrat, who at times clashed with a Republican-controlled House in the 1990s, saying that the public back-and-forth between McCrory and lawmakers today seems less cordial.
"We've got a war. The governor and the legislature, at least the Senate, don't see eye-to-eye," he said. "They're having a good old-fashioned headbutt."
For the GOP, Wrenn said, the troubling prospect is that the nasty exchanges could feedback on themselves, and the two sides find themselves locked in a continuing spiral of traded barbs.
While the House has joined the Senate in slow-rolling McCrory's nominations, lawmakers there have been less eager to engage in a back-and-forth with McCrory.
"I'm friends with the Senate, and I'm friends with the governor, and I stand with my friends," said Moore, R-Cleveland, hauling out an old political saw to cut through a questions about tension between lawmakers and the governor this week.
Over the past two years, the House has been more favorably inclined toward McCrory's agenda, and that appears to be the case again this year. However, neither chamber has fully embraced McCrory's agenda.
"You're looking at entering the zone where your talking about unified party government, (but) there's not a whole lot of unity there," said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.
What are the consequences?
The question is whether what has thus far been better-than-average political drama for Raleigh will have real-world consequences. For example, McCrory and Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz have stumped around the state for a historic preservation tax credit measure that cities and towns use to turn old mill buildings into new apartments and office and retail space.
Will the tax credit and other high-profile pieces of McCrory's plan fall victim to intraparty animosity?
"It's too premature to talk about that," Apodaca said. "I can assure you that hasn't been discussed amongst the leadership team. But who knows what happens in the heat of the summer?"
As if things weren't heated enough, for months, McCrory has been calling for legislators to give him an expanded package of job-recruitment tools, a call that House members responded to, if not exactly in the form that the governor would have like. Senate leaders rolled out their own economic development package this week that veered away from what McCrory has wanted and dramatically cut taxes for corporations.
"It breaks the bank. It breaks the promises of last year's tax reform," McCrory said, blasting the Senate plan, which provoked a response from Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, who also happens to be the chamber's chief budget writer.
"The governor needs to accept responsibility for rapidly draining his jobs incentive fund and directing close to 90 percent of the state’s incentive money to its richest three counties, including his own," Brown, R-Onslow, said in a statement.
Asked to follow up on Friday, a grim-faced Brown refused to field questions from reporters, saying he had said his piece for the moment.
Brown's response hints had one of the possible origins of the rift between McCrory and his fellow Republicans. The governor is a former big-city mayor from Mecklenburg County, one of the three where his administration has poured job development funding. Berger, Apodaca, and Moore are typical of the bulk of Republican lawmakers, who hail from small towns and rural areas of the state. This rural-urban rift has been driving much of the policy conflict at the General Assembly.
"That could be a big part of it. He comes from the urban side, and we come from the rural side. Sure," Apodaca said.
Others point to political self-interest playing a role. Most lawmakers run in relatively safe districts where a primary challenge is their biggest concern, while McCrory has to run statewide and appeal to an electorate that is more diverse – and not always pleased with the legislature's hard-right political policies.
"It's personality. It's ideology. It's politics," Bitzer said. "All of them are so intertwined with each other, it's hard to separate them out. Along with the fact that Republican lawmakers were in power two years before the governor ever set foot in the mansion."
Bitzer said the real litmus test for whether there's something markedly different going on in the executive-legislative relationship may come in June, when lawmakers prepare to send McCrory a budget.
"These early indicators are not promising," he said.