Legislature off to slow start, but fireworks expected

Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican legislators handed out chairmen’s gavels and filed bills on Wednesday, easing into a new work year that is likely to feature clashes with the state’s Democratic governor, including over what to do with a controversial law limiting LGBT rights.

The General Assembly finished in less than an hour with no recorded votes in sessions held two weeks after lawmakers re-elected GOP House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger.

Lawmakers are not expected to cast any votes today either before they recess for the weekend. Next week they’re expected to begin their usual schedule, with House committees taking up legislation, Moore said. One of the first bills likely to generate debate is a measure that would ease class-size reduction requirements next fall in early grades. The bill was filed after local school districts complained about the requirements.

Berger said he anticipated that by next week he and his Senate colleagues will have established rules governing how the chamber will scrutinize Cooper’s Cabinet choices.

Just two weeks before Cooper took office, the previous legislature required Senate confirmation of his department secretaries. Cooper has named eight of his 10 Cabinet secretaries thus far and has sued to overturn the mandate.

Senate confirmation is one of several areas where Cooper and GOP leaders already have butted heads. Cooper tried to set a tone before the session began in earnest, writing in a blog post hours before the noon start that consensus was still possible on key issues with Republicans, who continue to hold veto-proof majorities and can pass legislation at will if they remain united.

“I’m certain we will have disagreements and challenges in the weeks and months ahead. But I know we can do this,” Cooper wrote. “Let’s get to work, find common ground, and build an economy that really works for everyone.”

Cooper repeated his demand that House Bill 2 be repealed. Approved last March and enacted into law by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the law is best known for directing transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

The law led to the cancellation of major collegiate sporting events and business expansion plans, and Democrats say it has harmed the state’s economic brand.

In HB2, “we have toxic legislation that remains on the books,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said at a news conference unveiling this year’s agenda for Democrats. The list includes legislation also sought by Cooper, including significant teacher pay raises and the expansion of Medicaid coverage.

A deal to repeal HB2 last month fell apart. Berger again reminded reporters Wednesday that a repeal bill was defeated on the Senate floor last month when Cooper told Democrats to vote no because it also would have included a short moratorium on local LGBT ordinances. But Cooper said the moratorium provision broke the repeal agreement made with GOP leaders.

Cooper and other Democrats say there are already enough votes now to repeal HB2. But Berger suggested a resolution on HB2 is not going to be that easy: “I think under the circumstances that we have now, what we’re going to have to see is some willingness on all sides to compromise to get to a point where we’ve got a resolution there.” Berger said issues surrounding bathroom access also must be addressed.

Adding to the contentious start, Cooper earlier this month began the process to apply for Medicaid expansion under the federal health care overhaul in the final days of President Barack Obama’s administration.

A 2013 state law says expansion can’t be sought without the legislature’s OK. Berger and Moore went to court to stop Cooper, and a federal judge issued a temporary block.

Passing a two-year budget before the next fiscal year begins July 1 is the top priority of a General Assembly session in an odd-numbered year. State revenues are $322 million above expectations during the current budget year. Lawmakers hope to adjourn in early summer.

Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

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