In bipartisan NC House assignments, a sign of GOP strategy

North Carolina House Republicans need just one Democrat to side with them this year to pass laws over Gov. Roy Cooper's veto. Three Democrats just got unusually powerful committee assignments.

Posted Updated
NC Legislative Building
Travis Fain
, WRAL state government reporter

New committee assignments in the state House hint at a Republican strategy to exert more control over North Carolina's lawmaking process this year: Peel off a handful of Democratic votes to block Gov. Roy Cooper's veto.

Three Democrats, already considered likely options as Republicans look for allies across the aisle on controversial issues, were named co-chairs of House legislative committees on Tuesday. The assignments come with some power, though it's blunted by the fact that General Assembly committees have multiple chairs, almost all of which are Republican.

On Tuesday state Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, was named a senior co-chair for the House Finance Committee, which writes tax law. Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, will co-chair the House Education-K12 Committee. Rep. Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe, will co-chair the House committee on alcoholic beverage regulations.

The House's GOP leadership wasn't required to name any Democrats as committee chairs. And the three selected were also named last week as part of the "escort committee" that accompanied Republican Speaker of the House Tim Moore on the House floor after he was reelected speaker. That's a ceremonial designation some statehouse observers saw as a tip of the speaker's hand as the new legislative session begins.

Republicans hold a veto-proof supermajority in the state Senate. They're one seat shy of that mark in the House, meaning they need only to convince one Democrat to back their policies in order to pass them over the Democratic governor's objections. Moore, R-Cleveland, has said repeatedly that a handful of House Democrats are ready to work with the GOP majority, but he has not named names.

Willingham told WRAL News Tuesday that he wasn't asked to commit to anything in exchange for the chairmanship, and he noted that he has more than 20 years experience with the state's alcoholic beverages regulations, including two terms as a vice-chair of this committee.

"Speaker didn’t ask me to make any commitment to do anything and I haven’t committed to anything," Willingham said.

"[My vote] depends on what the bill is," he said. "I’m going to support any bill that will support my district and also the state. … Doesn’t matter who puts that bill forward.”

Cotham didn't respond to messages seeking comment. Wray sent a statement Wednesday, the day after this article posted, saying some people want to make things about politics, but "it's about policy and people."

"Throughout my career in the state legislature I have made it a point to work across party lines to help my district and to help the people of North Carolina," Wray said. "I will be steadfast in my effort to invest in our future and promote public policy that advances our state”.

Moore's office declined comment beyond a statement that the speaker included with several dozen committee appointments that were announced Tuesday.

"As the long session gets underway, I look forward to working with this bipartisan group of leaders to ensure an even stronger North Carolina," Moore said in the statement. "We have a strong group of committee chairs this session, and I am confident that they will continue to propel our state forward and to the top of the pack."

House Democratic Leader Robert Reives told WRAL News that he's "confident that members will vote on key issues in line with what's best for their constituents and what's best for our state."

A wide range of important things will come before the state legislature this session, including several likely to divide the chambers along partisan lines. Republicans will seek tighter abortion restrictions, for example. Debate over teacher salaries, general education funding and state tax rates almost annually produce partisan votes and gubernatorial vetoes. For much of Cooper's tenure, Democrats have held together on these vetoes, foiling GOP attempts to overturn them.

The Republican strategy this year appears to be two-pronged. The first: Look for common ground with moderate Democrats, enticing them with plum assignments and, once the state budget starts coming together, likely with projects funded in their legislative districts.

For the second prong, Republicans reworked House rules this year to give the speaker more power to set the daily agenda. The three-fifths threshold needed for a supermajority depends on the number of members actually on the House floor for a vote, so if a Democrat leaves the floor — to use the bathroom, for example — Moore could quickly bring veto overrides to the floor for a vote.

Moore told reporters last week that he has no plans to "ambush" Democrats with this sort of vote. Democrats weren't buying that, and Cooper said in a statement that "it's a shame that House Republican leaders believe they can only override a veto through deception, surprise and trickery.”

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