Legislature re-elects top leaders; McCrory visits
RALEIGH (AP) — The opening of the two-year General Assembly session Wednesday brought together dozens of newly elected legislators and a relative newcomer to state government, Gov. Pat McCrory.
McCrory watched as legislators, surrounded by family members, took the oath of office in the House and Senate galleries, elected chamber leaders and listened to speeches. The new governor said he made the rare visit by a chief executive to the Legislative Building to honor legislators and to begin building relationships.
McCrory’s arrival in Raleigh — he was sworn in last weekend — marks the first time in more than 140 years that Republicans have controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the Executive Mansion.
“This is going to have to be a team effort to fix some of the serious problems that we have in the state,” McCrory told reporters after the Senate unanimously elected Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, for a second term on Wednesday morning. McCrory returned at midday to the House, which unanimously elected Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, to a second term as speaker.
The General Assembly adjourned; lawmakers return Jan. 30 to begin introducing and debating legislation.
Recent Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue rarely visited the legislative complex beyond giving State of the State addresses, let alone on opening day. Tillis said he invited McCrory and new Lt. Gov. Dan Forest to attend the House session. It was also Forest’s first day as the Senate’s presiding officer. Forest, a Republican, won the job in November.
Tillis said he expected collaboration between the two branches of government, with some occasional dust-ups.
“Like family arguments, they end peacefully,” Tillis said, adding that their visits “are all positive messages that we’ll work very well together.” Berger said McCrory’s appearance indicates “we want to work together and try to solve the problems that we have in the state of North Carolina.”
McCrory also visited Wednesday morning with Senate Democrats; he had already met with the House and Senate Republican caucuses. McCrory said he’s been talking with legislators about short-term problems that need to be fixed.
The former Charlotte mayor has mentioned eliminating more quickly the state’s $2.5 billion in debt to the federal government, used to pay unemployment benefits. The Legislature also will consider finding more money to deal with housing issues for 2,000 mentally ill and developmentally disabled group home residents.
New House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, said his caucus is ready to meet with McCrory too but wants a substantive discussion about pressing issues: “The campaign is over, so I would hope that he didn’t plan on coming to us and just giving us a summarized campaign speech.”
In his acceptance speech, Berger urged colleagues to build on what the new Republican majority did the past two years on lower taxes, less regulation and the start of education reform. Berger said taxes on working families were still too high and regulations on businesses too cumbersome. He also suggested he would seek again to eliminate tenure for veteran teachers.
“No teacher should be guaranteed a job if they fail in their responsibility to educate our children,” Berger said.
Tillis’ speech had similarly broad policy goals but he also said he was committed to keeping North Carolina a right-to-work state and send a clear message to businesses “that North Carolina will continue to be the least unionized state in the United States.”
Tillis, however, sounded a more conciliatory tone with Democrats, saying he would “ensure civil, respectful discourse” and minority-party members would still “have many opportunities to do great things.”
In a reference to the public’s frustration with national politics, Berger told his GOP colleagues they must show everyone there’s a “real difference between a Washington Republican and a North Carolina Republican. North Carolina Republicans deliver! We kept our word. And we act on the promises we’ve made.” Berger and Tillis, who has said this is his last term in the House, have been mentioned as potential U.S. Senate candidates in 2014.
Wednesday’s one-day organizational session was a first for the Legislature and allowed lawmakers and their families to focus more on the pomp of a new session — color guards, fidgety children and grandchildren on the House and Senate floors and robed Supreme Court justices administering oaths.
“This really kind of gives you the chill that you’re (now) part of the history of this state,” said first-term Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union.
The House also elected Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, as speaker pro tempore and the Senate picked Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, as deputy leader.
More than 50 House and Senate members are new to the 170-member Legislature, reflecting a branch of government that has seen tremendous turnover since 2010, the last time Democrats controlled the two chambers.
Republicans now hold or control 77 of the House’s 120 seats, a net increase of nine seats over the 2011-12 session, and 33 of the 50 Senate seats, a net increase of two.