Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let the fun begin in Raleigh

RALEIGH -- The 2011 N.C. General Assembly convenes today in Raleigh with an entirely new cast of characters in charge of the crushed marble, brass and walnut edifice on Jones Street a block north of the Capital. This marks the 35th year I have walked across Union Square and down to the Legislative Building, and begins the 18th biennial session I've covered at least part of the time since we moved to Raleigh in 1977, including a couple years writing editorials back in Greensboro.

Had I known it would be that long, I would have worn better shoes and sat down a lot more.

Those cold, hard terrazzo floors in the Legislative Building are tough on old feet and bad knees, and though I've never walked into one of the fountains that dominate courtyards inside the legislative building, as some unfortunate freshman member or unwary lobbyist does from time to time, I've found the building to be a hazard to creaky joints and aging bones.

On the other hand, the people who work there -- the clerks of the House and Senate, the serving crew in the cafeteria, the researchers in bill drafting and fiscal research, the 170 members and their staffs, the hundreds of lobbyists and the dozen or so regular members of the Capital Press Corps -- year in and year out are some of the most interesting people in this Vale of Humility Between Two Mountains of Conceit.

But this year, it changes in dramatic ways. Perhaps my great grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Betts, who preached at occasional political events round this town near the end of his long and colorful career, would have remembered the 1898 session, when Sydenham B. Alexander represented Mecklenburg in the Senate and Walter P. Craven, R.M. Ransom and J. Solomon Reid represented it in the House. It has been said that's the last time Republicans controlled the legislature, though others argue the date goes back to 1870. There are days when it feels like I've been covering the place at least that long.

But my days as a Raleigh correspondent began in the reign of James 1, when Jim Hunt had just been sworn in as governor for the first of his four terms. The town belonged to Democrats despite Republican gains a few years earlier in 1972, when voters put Republicans in the governorship (Jim Holshouser) and the U.S. Senate (Jesse Helms) for the first time in the 20th century. But in 1977, three years after the disastrous Watergate election of 1974 wiped out most Republican legislators in Raleigh, it was largely a Democratic government.

The governor was a Democrat, the lieutenant governor was a Democrat, the entire Council of State was Democratic, the courts system was headed by a Democrat and the legislature was heavily Democratic. In the Senate there were 4 Republicans and 46 Democrats; in the House there were 6 Republicans and 114 Democrats. There were 6 legislators of African American descent -- two in the Senate, four in the House, and there were 23 women -- 4 in the Senate, 19 in the House. Most but not all were Democrats.

The fortunes of Democrats and Republicans have ebbed and flowed since then. Republican Gov. Jim Martin served two terms in the 1980s and early 1990s, but otherwise Democrats have hung onto the governor's mansion. Republicans ran the House for two terms in the mid-1990s before Democrats won it back. Then in 2003 Republicans appeared to have won the House back, but a change in party by one legislator produced a deadlock and joint Democrat-Republican management in the House for two years.

Since then Democrats have run the show -- until voters put an end to that, at least temporarily and maybe for a long time, last fall. A lot depends on whether Republicans do unto Democrats what the Democrats used to do unto Republicans when it came to the decennial redistricting.

For the first time since the 19th century, Republicans will run the House and Senate. They control 99 of the 170 legislative seats, with 31 members in the 50-member Senate and 67 members, plus one independent who will likely vote regularly with them, in the House. By the way, the changes include the fact that there will be five fewer black legislators in the 2011 session and five fewer women legislators in 2011. Most of the women lawmakers are still Democrats, but one-third are Republicans.

Gov. Bev Perdue, of course, is a Democrat, as is Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. Perdue gets to propose the budget. Dalton gets to preside over the Senate. But the Republicans who run the House and Senate get to decide what passes and what fails, and for anyone who wonders what difference elections make, we're fixing to find out.

So what we have in North Carolina is genuine mixed government -- with Republicans in charge of legislating and Democrats mostly in charge of executing. Republicans who have longed for this moment -- and who yearn to win the governor’s mansion in next year’s election -- have an opportunity not only to change the direction of how North Carolina taxes its people and spends its money, but also to change how a major government institution performs. Will it be behind closed doors, riding roughshod over the opposition and building the kinds of power structures they have complained about Democrats doing for years?

The NC Coalition of Lobbying and Government reform has a list of the sort that Republicans in past years have embraced. It includes such things as no more secret meetings on the budget, making the budget public for three days before any vote is taken, no more "blank bills" to be filled in later, no more non budgetary amendments called "special provisions" allowed in the budget bill and 24 hours notice before a committee substitute can be sprung on the membership.

What I know from covering politics and government for more than four decades is that it’s hard work, no matter who’s in charge, and doing that work ethically and in a transparent fashion that lets taxpayers see what they’re doing, is harder than it sounds. It’s a lot easier to talk about reforms that create more openness and that give every legislator the chance to have his or her ideas heard on the floor or propose amendments, than it is to allow it.

But if the new Republican majority can carry through on its promises of opening up the legislature and taking better care of the public’s money and its main institutions of education and public safety, they will have earned the public’s gratitude and the right to keep running the Legislative Building on Jones Street. If they opt for manipulating the rules to squelch dissent and remain in power, if they create slush funds to help their friends and punish their enemies, as they accuse Democrats of doing, and if they act unethically in the dispatch of the public’s business, they can count on a short stay in positions of power in Raleigh.

Likewise, Gov Bev Perdue has opportunities and challenges. If she can work with the new Republican majority to balance the budget, reduce taxes, improve tax fairness and protect classrooms and provide for public safety, she will be in an excellent position for re-election -- the campaign for which, mind you, is already under way if not visibly so to the public. She may not have the choice. She has one veto to Republicans' 99 votes. But it's hard to imagine Perdue not standing up for the things Democratic governors always support: public schools, community colleges and the university system, promoting jobs, and better mental health and health care for those who cannot help themselves. Her popularity numbers haven't improved dramatically, but Republicans have yet to run the legislature for a full year. We don't know yet whether they're do a great job or make a hash of it. What Perdue and the new Republican majority do in 2011 will be major factors in who runs the joint after the 2012 election. Let the fun begin.


Michael Blackwell said...

Reading this exceptional column--with its rare insights based on decades of experience--makes me think Mr. Betts is ready--creaky knees and all-- to willingly hop back into the briar patch.

Anonymous said...

Jack what do Democrats stand for? Let me help you out.

European level gas prices that will destroy jobs.
Trial Lawyers.
Weak military.
Pandering to terrorists.
Late term abortion.
Open borders.
Cap and trade that would destroy jobs.
Tax the rich.
Knee capping our energy industry.
Releasing repeat, repeat felons.
Carbon mandates.
Bowing to dictators.
Global warming.
Defunding NASA.
Increasing Govt size.
1.5 triilion more in debt this year alone.
Choos choos.
Forced busing.
Smart growth.
Property revaluations.
Unfunded Unions pensions.
Mike Selasley.
Jim Black.
Nick Mackey.
John Edwards.
Nascar Hall of Shame.
Mike Nifong.

There is so much to be proud of, I just didn't want you to short change yourself.