The sun has set on North Carolina’s 2011 long session in the General Assembly, but pundits, analysts, and news media are still digesting the sweeping changes brought to the state in these few brief months. 2011 was destined to be a historic year for North Carolina since the last vote was cast in last November’s elections, but just how historic it would become was anyone’s guess. Now as the dust settles from a torrent of legislative activity, citizens can look back and evaluate the voluminous works of its newcomer legislators.
For Republicans, it was an unprecedented opportunity to lead North Carolina in a new direction after more than a century of Democratic dynasties. For most of the last 140 years, Republicans’ role in the legislative chambers had been confined to complaining about mistreatment by the majority or waging futile arguments against disagreeable legislation. Now it was their turn at the helm.
Campaigning on their “100 Days that Will Change North Carolina,” a 10-point agenda spelling out their objectives during the first 100 legislative days, Republicans promised change from a tax and spend system of poor government. Their effectiveness as leaders and the trust of their constituents would hinge upon their faithfulness to this platform.
Reminiscent of the Contract with America that served as the campaign engine for national Republicans, the GOP’s “100 Days” was a commitment to several key reforms. The list included eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools operating in the state, establishing basic voter ID at the ballot box, engaging the state in the fight against Obamacare, and most importantly, balancing the budget without new taxes.
While controlling the General Assembly, Republicans were far from guaranteed success in implementing their agenda. Eager to play hardball was obstacle-in-chief Governor Beverly Perdue, who was recently characterized by the Washington Post as possibly the most vulnerable governor going in to the 2012 election. With flagging support from her base, Perdue had to distinguish herself and represent a Democratic counterweight to the GOP majority.
Soon after the beginning of the legislative session, the legislature and executive branch were soon at loggerheads. Following the legislature’s passage of HB2, which would have directed North Carolina to engage in the national lawsuit against Obamacare, Perdue abandoned all semblance of cooperation with the legislature—vetoing HB 2 and four other Republican-crafted bills leading up to the budget balancing finale. Republicans had to reckon with a governor playing partisan politics and orient their work around her.
Moreover, Perdue’s stubbornness likely slowed down Republican efforts to pass certain pieces of legislation, including their charter schools bill, as they opted to water down bills in the hopes of winning the governor’s approval. The veto-happy governor enjoyed a boost in her approval ratings as she shored up more of her base with every thwarting of GOP legislation.
The climactic standoff over the budget, however, proved to be Perdue’s Waterloo. Gaining in the polls, she was ready to veto a Republican budget. Although the Republican’s plan differed from her own by a negligible amount in education spending, an issue she harped on incessantly, Perdue wanted to keep her momentum going and appear strong against the GOP.
Meanwhile, House Republicans had garnered the support of five Democrats who feared a government shutdown in an unfettered political battle between GOP lawmakers and Perdue. The Democrats’ support gave the GOP a veto-proof majority over both chambers, swiftly overriding the governor’s veto only days after it was delivered, leaving her looking weak and ineffectual.
With the budget out of the way, a triumphant GOP went into overdrive. In a storm of legislative activity, they fulfilled the rest of their pledges to the state in a race-to-the-finish week before adjourning. Often holding late-night sessions to ensure they kept with their deadline, the legislature reaped many fruits for their labor. The Republicans set about lifting the charter schools cap, passing voter photo ID, annexation reform, and enacting several gun laws and an abortion bill to boot. Over 280 bills now await the governor’s signature–many of them, such as voter ID, face a strong likelihood of veto.
With a strong final push, the GOP leadership achieved all of its major goals including: passing a budget with no new taxes, passing a bill to fight Obamacare, voter photo ID, and lifting the charter schools cap. Many issues, however, will remain for a later time—including a constitutional convention special session in August where an eminent domain amendment will be introduced.
Overall, GOP lawmakers handled the learning curve well and, in large part, stayed true to their promises to North Carolina. They had remarkable success implementing their agenda, except for Perdue’s vetoes—which currently total seven. The political prowess of GOP policymakers even provoked praise from Raleigh News & Observer’s Rob Christensen: “In the final weeks the Republican rookies showed that they belonged in the big leagues.” Amusingly, however, some pundits have begun to argue that the “100 Days” was too successful. Taylor Batten of the Charlotte Observer recently alleged that Republicans have misread their mandate, remarking negatively that, “(House Speaker Thom) Tillis and his fellow Republicans got voters’ permission for a little get-together but then partied like they hadn’t been in power in 100 years.”
With vetoes likely to come and several special sessions to tackle issues like redistricting and constitutional amendments on the horizon, the political narrative of 2011 is not quite over. Nevertheless, with the end of the long session, Republicans will turn the page on an action-packed and largely successful chapter in history.