Patrick Gannon: Raleigh politics gets personal

Published 9:42 pm Monday, August 3, 2015

RALEIGH – When Republicans took control of the House, Senate and governor’s office at the start of 2013, observers speculated about how the three units of state government would get along as the complicated and controversial political process played out in the coming years.

While some level of conflict and enmity would be expected – this is politics after all – I submit that few anticipated it would come to this.

Raleigh’s political structure has become a triangle of tension, and it doesn’t appear to be settling down. The politicians can deny it all they want, but the proof is out there for all to see.

One example came last week. In one corner of the legislative complex, a House budget committee held a public hearing on the differences between the House and Senate budgets, focusing on education issues. The House invited speakers from a range of interests, and they came to the podium to denounce the Senate budget and urge House members to fight for their chamber’s plan, regardless of how long it took to reach a final agreement.

It was clearly a step by the House to try to get a leg-up on the Senate in budget negotiations. Not a soul spoke in favor of the Senate plan.

The Senate took notice, and Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Henderson Republican and chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, lobbed a criticism at the House budget committee from the Senate floor.

“I’d like to give a shout out to the appropriations team in the House, but they’re too busy going over our budget to sit down with us and discuss the differences … and negotiate and move forward,” Apodaca said. “So I’d like to encourage the House appropriations team and join with the rest of us, and let’s get home before Labor Day.”

As the House budget meeting was going on, in another corner of the legislative complex, Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican and key Senate transportation leader, held a news conference to speak against Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan to borrow $1.2 billion for transportation projects if the voters agree to it. Instead, Rabon touted the Senate’s plan to eliminate transfers from the state highway fund and instead pump that money into road projects. McCrory’s budget director, Lee Roberts, then held a media briefing to counter Rabon’s press conference.

But aside from the policy disagreements, more telling have been the public jabs that lawmakers are taking at the governor and each other, and that McCrory is taking at legislators.

Recently, the governor told the media that he would veto the Jacksonville Sen. Harry Brown’s plan to redistribute sales taxes in a way that would benefit poorer, rural counties at the expense of urban ones. McCrory jumped on the possibility that redistribution could lead to property tax increases in urban areas, calling such efforts “liberal tax and spend principles of the past that simply don’t work.”

Brown fired back at McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, saying he “can’t figure out if Pat thinks he is the governor of Charlotte or the mayor of North Carolina.”

It’s gone downhill from there, with several other Republican lawmakers sounding off about the governor to the media. Last week, Rep. Phil Shepard of Jacksonville, typically fairly soft-spoken, was overheard expressing frustration about the governor to fellow legislators. “If he would just shut his mouth,” Shepard said. “What does he think he’s trying to accomplish?”

Asked to clarify his remarks after the meeting, Shepard referred in part to McCrory’s comments about Brown’s sales tax plan. He said all people have the right to say what they want to say, but “sometimes you’re better to just not say anything.” McCrory’s office declined to respond.

In some instances, this isn’t just politics. It’s personal. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.