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Patrick Gannon: Session starts mysteriously

RALEIGH – The vagueness was unmistakable.

At a news conference last week, state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger didn’t reveal much about the upcoming legislative session apart from what most who follow state politics already know: job creation, Medicaid reform, tax changes, regulatory reform and education and teacher pay all will be on the table again.

After last week’s one-day organizational meeting, the real lawmaking, when bills will be filed and debated, begins Jan. 28.

Berger, just elected to his third term as president pro tempore of the Senate, is often somewhat guarded in his statements. But he seemed unusually cautious in responses to reporters’ questions about the 2015 session.

Asked what lawmakers were looking at in terms of tax reform, Berger said he didn’t have specifics.

“I’m sure there will be bills introduced,” he said. “We’ll take a look at them, and we’ll see what has support and what doesn’t have support.”

About economic incentives, Berger said Gov. Pat McCrory and Commerce Secretary John Skvarla would propose a package of legislation to help with job recruitment.

“I would like to defer until I see specifically what they are proposing,” he said.

You get the idea.

Moore, just elected to his first term as House speaker, wasn’t much more forthcoming. We don’t know yet whether that will be unusual or par for the course for him.

There are many possible explanations for the lack of detail.

First, maybe Berger and Moore and their caucuses haven’t had enough time to solidify their agendas to the point that they’re comfortable talking about them in public. Second, perhaps they’re being intentionally vague, so as not to arouse suspicion and protest in advance of the session. And third, maybe Berger and Moore will defer more to the individual members of their caucuses and take some of the pressure and focus off of top leadership. That’s the most intriguing explanation.

In a pamphlet distributed to House Republicans during his run for speaker, Moore wrote that the caucus should be a “collection of individuals, each accountable to their constituents and colleagues, rather than as a top-down organization with employees accountable to a boss.” In other words, he was suggesting that he wouldn’t rule with an iron fist and instead let other lawmakers take the lead and do their jobs.

The two chamber leaders did agree that some type of reform of the state’s $13 billion-plus Medicaid program is needed but that they don’t support expansion of Medicaid to more state residents, as McCrory has suggested he might support.

They also agree that starting pay for public school teachers should be increased to $35,000 a year, but whether veteran teachers will get boosts is uncertain.

Berger added that improvements to infrastructure, such as roads and government buildings, may get more attention this session than they have in the past. He referred at least in part to McCrory’s proposal for a transportation bond to help pay for a backlog in needed projects across the state. But even on that topic, Berger was short on detail.

“But what we’ll do there and exactly what that will look like I think remains to be seen,” he said.

Clearly, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Patrick Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.

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