RALEIGH, N.C. — Six months ago, top Republican state lawmakers met with conservative allies to preview their strategy for the legislative session.
The party controlled the entire lawmaking process in North Carolina for the first time in more than a century, and top legislators made their ambitions clear. Big changes were coming.
The leader of a conservative political organization left the meeting calling the agenda “breathtaking.”
After the session, the description seemed like an understatement.
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The Republican supermajority, backed by Gov. Pat McCrory, upended decades of settled law, cut once-sacred institutions and redefining the state’s political vision. The moves represent a test of how a moderate, evenly divided state reacts to a deeply conservative governing class.
Republicans began the change two years ago when they took control of the Legislature. They passed restrictions on abortions, limited civil lawsuits, loosened gun rules and began to erode long-protected Democratic programs such as early childhood education.
But this year, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger took it a step further. The new laws require photo identification at the polls, levy a flat income tax, make it harder to get an abortion, reduce unemployment benefits, require the teaching of cursive-writing in schools, require fewer government regulations, resume executions and allow concealed handguns in bars and restaurants.
Even conservative measures deemed too extreme a year ago found new life. A bill to prohibit Islamic Sharia law in North Carolina courts that died in committee in the previous session is now headed to the governor’s desk.
The difference this year, in substance and tone, grew from the 2012 elections, which installed a Republican governor and legislative supermajorities. The GOP holds a 77-43 advantage in the House and a 33-17 Senate edge.
In the previous session, Republican lawmakers pushed to require photo identification at the polls, but Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed it. This year, the GOP pushed a more sweeping bill that will make voting more difficult for hundreds of thousands, and the governor is expected to sign it.
It’s a similar story for the Racial Justice Act, which allowed convicted killers to be spared the death penalty if they could prove racial bias in their cases. Republican lawmakers weakened it last year but repealed it completely this session with McCrory’s approval.
The Senate drove the agenda, establishing a more conservative stance than the House and governor on most major bills, such as taxes, abortion, guns and energy exploration. It crafted a detailed agenda at the start of the session, consolidated to a one-pager with boxes next to the items. Berger’s office checked them off, getting nearly every one.
But Republican leaders downplayed the notion that they made big changes, saying the work was a continuation of what they promised since taking control.
“We said that we intended to reform the tax code; we’ve done that,” Berger said. “We said we intended to continue the fiscal reforms that we had started; we’ve continued to do that. We said we would continue the initiatives we started in education; we’ve done that.
“I think anyone who listened to what we said we intended to do should not be surprised.”
Many economists don’t consider the new tax structure reform because it extended many loopholes valued by special interests and didn’t broaden the tax base. The new law creates a tax code under which a taxpayer earning $40,000 a year will pay the same income tax rate, 5.75 percent, as someone making $1 million in 2015.
The tax plan led to more spending cuts in the $20.6 billion state budget, even though the state’s improving economy gave lawmakers more money to allocate. The reductions in public education, from prekindergarten to universities, came as lawmakers earmarked money for private-school vouchers for the first time and allowed charter schools broader ability to expand.
For most of the session, Democrats appeared to be spectators.
Unlike the previous session, when Republicans needed five Democrats to vote with them to reach a veto-proof majority, there was no need for cooperation this year.
Rep. Garland Pierce, the Legislative Black Caucus chairman, said Republicans advanced an agenda that hurt the poor and working class. He highlighted the end of the earned-income tax credit, which helps low-income working families with children, and the decision not to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of uninsured people near the poverty line.
“This is a targeted group of legislation (they) are pushing that will … cause pain and hurt on these people,” Pierce said.
The polarization concerns Rep. Darren Jackson, a Raleigh Democrat. He said it changes the state’s image to the outside world.
“I think North Carolina has had a moderate brand to companies, education, everything,” he said. “I think as we are getting more partisan, that’s going to present a problem when you are trying to attract new business, when you are trying to keep the brightest minds in the state.”
But the majority party argues it sent a different message. Rep. Tim Moffitt, an Asheville Republican, said it told “the employers in our state that we are open for business.”