What happened to the short session?

June 27, 2022

There is just one obvious description from this year’s “short session” of the North Carolina legislature: what a mess.

As they failed time and again to pass their own key legislative priorities, Republican leaders in Raleigh more and more resembled something out of a cartoon: tripping over themselves and unable to agree even within their own caucus. Those priorities – Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana, legalized sports gambling, and their version of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill – were all passed by Republicans in the Senate, but crashed against the rocks with Republicans in the House. While there may still be some distant hope on Medicaid expansion via a state budget compromise (though don’t hold your breath), the other three pieces of legislation are now pretty conclusively dead.

Despite holding a comfortable nine-seat majority in the House, Republicans failed by a single vote to pass the online sports gambling legislation that has, puzzlingly, been one of their top priorities in this session. Medical marijuana, an issue widely popular with voters of all political leanings, failed to gain enough support in the Republican House caucus to bring the legislation to the House floor – even despite personal sponsorship by the most powerful Republican politicians in the State Senate. And finally, House Speaker Tim Moore announced earlier this week that HB 755, North Carolina Republicans’ version of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would not receive a floor vote during the session because they do not have the votes to override Governor Cooper’s certain veto. Understandably frustrated, Speaker Moore actually suggested that the legislature just give up and adjourn for the summer, and perhaps reconvene in December (after the fall election) to take up Medicaid expansion – again.

To be sure, legislating is never easy, even with a majority. Democrats in Washington have discovered this the hard way with several key pieces of President Biden’s domestic agenda. Yet the beauty of North Carolina’s state legislature, like most others, is that no filibuster exists. Only a simple majority is required to pass any legislation. And yet, despite controlling both chambers of the legislature, Republican leadership was unable to pass even its own legislative agenda, with potential impacts on future Republican House leadership. What gives?

Serving Two Masters

It’s become clear that Republican leaders in Raleigh have a weak, and slipping, control over their own caucus. And unfortunately, they have no one to blame but themselves.

As Republicans in North Carolina lean heavily on corporate PACs to fund their campaigns, the lobbyists for those corporate interests have become major players in deciding what bills get advanced, voted on, and even written. Yet this can clash with the interests of radically right-wing Republican caucus members, many of whom are wedded to conservative ideological purity. Both gerrymandering and increasing political polarization has added to the number of Republican caucus members for whom extreme positions are the whole point – not a negative.

Resistance from this increasingly radical section of the GOP caucus not only killed Republican leaders’ coveted online sports betting bill, but also the very narrow medical marijuana bill. (This is potentially to exact revenge for not bringing the radicals’ pet anti-gay project, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, to the floor.) On Medicaid expansion, they appear headed to do the same. While Senate Leader Phil Berger finally conceded the decade-long debate last month and allowed the Senate to pass a full expansion bill, House Speaker Tim Moore – who once supported expansion himself – now has cold feet. He has countered with a very different proposal to the plan the Senate passed, which looks unlikely to go anywhere.

Meanwhile, the corporate donors and lobbyists behind these measures seem to have wasted a mountain of money going exactly nowhere. You can bet that both Berger and Moore are fielding angry calls from their deep-pocketed donors about the failure to move this legislation – and about their basic ability to govern, which is now understandably in doubt.

Worth noting is that House Speaker Tim Moore is widely expected to retire soon to run for Congress. (Were it not for Madison Cawthorn’s higher popularity among Republican primary voters, he likely would have done so this year.) There are two expected candidates to replace Moore as Speaker: Rep. Jason Saine (Lincoln) and Rep. John Bell (Greene, Johnston and Wayne). As Saine was the primary sponsor and promoter of the now-dead online sports betting bill, this debacle has understandably tarnished his brand among key Republican donors and corporate lobbyists, a critical constituency in picking their caucus leadership.

Most importantly, though, North Carolina’s voters are left behind, and their preferences largely ignored. It’s no wonder that a clear majority of voters are unhappy with the legislature’s performance and don’t think legislative leaders are focused on the issues that matter. The good news, however, is that voters will have an opportunity to make changes to that leadership this fall.

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