The Party Line
5:41 pm
Mon July 14, 2014

Unified Statehouse Is Clearly Divided

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

The past few days have testified to the old political saying: there are two things you never want to watch being made — sausage and laws. 

And in the attempts to pass a readjusted state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, the North Carolina General Assembly has also played into another old saying: Actions speak louder than words.

In trying to resolve their fundamental differences on the $21 billion state budget, the state House and Senate formed what is often referred to as the “third chamber” of legislatures: A conference committee.

Before legislation can be delivered to the governor, both chambers have to pass identical-worded bills. Whenever one divides the power to legislate between two groups, the likelihood is that you will also have differences—that’s human nature and the cornerstone of the American philosophy of diffused power and the inherent nature of conflict that it creates.

Conference committees seek to engage in a second key component of American political philosophy, and that is compromise.  The nature of conference committees is that both sides advocate for their respective policy positions, with the “give and take” usually occurring behind closed doors.

In an unusual move for transparency, the chambers decided to hold their conference committee deliberations in the open, and that’s where we saw the fireworks post-4th of July occur.

Both sides made movement, especially from the state Senate giving up the push to tie teacher pay raises to career protection, often referred to as tenure.

But when both sides met in conference to discuss the issue of teaching assistants, with both chambers controlling an hour of debate and deliberation, the gloves came off. 

When the House sought to gain insights from superintendents and teachers to support their side regarding teaching assistants, the Senate objected that public comments were not part of the conference agreement and walked out of the session. 

The Senate’s walkout, led by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s superintendent was called and thanked the legislators for listening to his presentation, played into both of the old adages: The ugliness of the legislative process, particularly when it comes to both sides digging in their heels, and the actions of the senators walking out on teachers and their representatives.

Politics is not just about policy differences and partisanship, but it is also about the optics of how policy is made. 

While this may have also happened behind closed doors, when a gallery of cameras are rolling and the public is made aware of it on the local news, the perception created by the optics had to result in fulfilling the adage “actions speaking louder than words.”

To have the chair of the Senate appropriations come back from their hour “recess” to chastise and lecture their House counterparts only added to what is now the most obvious to casual summer political watchers: the differences between the two chambers is pretty obvious.

Two other pieces of evidence clearly demonstrate that it's the House and Governor versus the Senate: when House Speaker Thom Tillis tried to explain "People could have a field day with pretending that there are great emotions, that we’re intractable.  I don’t think we are. I think this is where we are at our best,” Senate Rules Committee chair Tom Apodaca responded tersely, “After those comments I’m speechless.” 

Then Governor McCrory weighed in with a broad side against the state Senate: “The Senate is currently standing by themselves with no visible support outside of the Beltline of our state capital,” and issued his veto threat against the Senate’s budget plan.

True to form, the state senate’s leader, President Pro Tem Phil Berger, responded with his own retort, reminding the chief executive of the override of previous vetoes by the supermajority within the legislature, along with calling out the governor’s own proposed cuts.  

To which, the governor responded to the senate leader’s charges on “Charlotte Talks” with a very simple statement: “His facts are incorrect” (listen nine minutes in). 

While the three sides will possibly come to a budget resolution (they could simply leave the budget ‘as-is’ with no cuts or pay increases whatsoever), the narrative that many analysts had been thinking about the relationship within the unified Republican Party control of state government is more and more confirmed: it’s anything but unified.