Politics
9:46 am
Tue July 22, 2014

Are Safe Political Seats Behind The Budget Impasse?

North Carolina counties by party representation in state Senate.
North Carolina counties by party representation in state Senate.

Imagine the nasty notes you’d receive if you were four weeks late on your rent or mortgage.

If a pregnancy went four weeks long doctors would induce labor.

But if you’re a lawmaker, or a whole group of them in Raleigh, and your budget is four weeks late as of today, well…

So what is taking the pressure off lawmakers to get a budget deal done?

Unless you’ve spent your summer on a desert island with a volleyball named Wilson you know the issues holding up the budget are teacher pay, teaching assistants and Medicaid payments.

Those are the official issues keeping the Republican controlled House, Republican controlled Senate and Republican governor in a stalemate.

But why can’t lawmakers from the same party agree?

"I think its a combination of things," says Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist who’s worked in North Carolina politics for the last 40 years.

"Part of it’s about power, who’s going to call the shots. And part of it is each of the three sides feel like they’re gaining something out of the fight. They feel like their sides are popular so they’re sticking to their guns."

That first part, "who’s going to call the shots," that’s nothing new in politics.  But the second bit, that’s surprising. How can three fighting sides all be popular?  

Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College thinks it all depends on your point of view and "the seat you currently reside in."

A successful politician’s point of view and their seat are both defined by the map of districts re-jiggered by the Republicans after the 2010 census. "The way that the Republicans redrew the legislative districts," says Bitzer, "there are very few districts that aren’t overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican to the point where we could say they are competitive."

Bitzer found re-districting created just a handful of contested seats in the general election.  Of the 50 races for North Carolina Senate only eight were deemed competitive, meaning they could change party.  It’s a similar story in the state House where fully half of the seats will face no real competition in the November election. 

Bitzer believes the lack of competition can create an echo chamber that encourages a politician to hold firm. "If you’re coming from a very safe Republican district the likelihood is that you’re speaking to people that want to advocate a particular policy, an ideological perspective and you think boy everybody I talk to, hey, they’re all agreeing with me."

Long time Republican strategist Carter Wrenn agrees. "It’s a real problem. There are less people in swing districts and it really profoundly changes the politics inside the legislature. And this year it takes a certain amount of pressure off the Republicans in the House and the Senate because so many seats aren’t really viable or contested seriously." And that, says Wrenn, leads to lawmakers taking more ideological stances with "less fear of any consequences."

In other words they have job security even in an election year.