Tighter GOP grip on North Carolina legislature, high court limits Democrats’ options

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During years of government split between the governor and Republican majorities in the state legislature, Cooper relied on party members in the legislature to maintain his vetoes. And a Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court has blocked other parts of the GOP agenda, particularly around redistricting, voter ID and school funding.

But Republican legislative and judicial gains on Tuesday — the GOP also swept four statewide appeals justice races — could weaken the ability of Cooper and Democrats to shape policy debates alike. Burning social issues such as abortion, transgender rights and school curricula could come to the fore under stronger Republican scrutiny.

“This election has been a barometer of where voters want their state and their country to go,” State Senate Leader Phil Berger said in a statement late Tuesday night.

As Republicans have done throughout the campaign, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade who granted women the constitutional right to abortion, Berger downplayed social issues and focused on other priorities for his supermajority.

“The Republican platform of lowering taxes, creating jobs, expanding parental choice and quality education is one that reflects the needs of all North Carolina residents,” Berger said. “Our promise to the people of North Carolina is that the Senate Republican supermajority will continue to deliver on these priorities.”

Senate Republicans won 30 seats in the 50-member chamber, up from their previous majority of 28 seats. In the House, Republicans won 71 seats in the 120-member chamber, two more than they previously held and only one less than the 60% threshold needed to override the governor’s vetoes without any support from the other party. That small victory offered Cooper and the Democrats some solace.

“North Carolinas voted for balance and progress,” Cooper wrote on Twitter Tuesday night. “I will continue to work with this legislature to support a growing economy, more clean energy, better health care and strong public schools.”

Despite big differences, Cooper and Republican lawmakers have reached several important agreements in recent years, including on energy policy and the budget. They stood side by side to announce new jobs in North Carolina, dismissing concerns about legislation that businesses might find problematic. There is also bipartisan agreement on expanding Medicaid, although a final agreement has yet to be reached.

“If we see a healthy majority but not a super-majority, I think we’re going to see a lot of what we’ve seen in recent years: Republicans using the types of legislative action that aren’t vetoed by the governor, redistricting and local bills,” said Chris Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University. “That’s going to be where the action is. State courts are less likely to put the breaks on recutting.

With such a narrow margin, however, House Democrats could face pressure or pressure from Republicans to override a Cooper veto. Or Republicans could schedule by-pass votes when some Democrats aren’t in the House. Several Democrats have worked with Republicans in the Legislature to end a longstanding budget impasse between Cooper and Republican leaders. The budget included millions for projects in those Democrats’ districts.

In his first two years, Cooper vetoed 28 pieces of legislation, and Republican supermajorities struck down 23 of them. But since Democrats defeated GOP supermajorities in the 2018 election, none of Cooper’s 57 vetoes have been overruled. This mark could be in danger in the future.

While Democrats, if they stay united, can thwart overrides, they have more clearly lost power in the state’s highest court. Just three years ago, the Democrats held a 6-1 home court advantage. And in Tuesday’s election, Democrats had a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court. But the Republican victories give the GOP justices a 5-2 partisan advantage on the court, which looks likely to pick up on Leandro’s longstanding education funding case as well as cases involving redistricting and, potentially , the right to abortion.

“When Republicans had supermajorities, from my perspective, Democrats tried to push their policy proposals through the courts,” said Republican strategist Pat Ryan, who previously worked for Berger. “The only difference will be that this path will no longer be available to Democrats to achieve their political goals.”

FILE - North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, speaks to reporters at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, North Carolina on Nov. 16, 2021 after the Senate gave initial approval to a bill final state government budget bill.  All 170 North Carolina General Assembly seats were on Election Day ballots.  Republican legislative leaders campaigned to win the two extra Senate seats and three House seats they needed to secure non-veto majorities for their party over the next two years.  (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson, File)

Democrats have warned that Republican supermajorities will respond to the “worst impulses” of the far right.

“The worst impulses limit the rights of North Carolinians,” said Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson, who previously worked with Cooper. “The culture wars will come back to North Carolina and that’s something we don’t need. Thanks to Cooper’s veto, we were able to steer the legislature away from its worst impulses in the past two years.

But Republicans, who have controlled both houses of the state legislature since the 2010 election, pointed to their past policy positions as a roadmap for where a supermajority might go next. Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said they do not favor an outright ban on abortion, as other Republican-run states have done. But there could be moves to increase vouchers allowing students to attend private schools, an effort to ban affirmative action at state universities and colleges, and more funding for workforce development. .

“Sen. Berger has been consistent for a long time,” Ryan said. “He prioritizes getting taxes as low as possible and expanding school choice. Things we’ve been hearing for many years. don’t think there is a drastic change.

Even with the move toward more GOP power, attention will quickly turn to 2024.

“It happens very quickly,” Jackson said.

Cooper is time-limited and can no longer run for governor. Lawmakers must once again redraw the boundaries of Congress, which could position Moore for a candidacy for the US Congress.

It’s also a presidential year, perhaps offering Democrats hope of making gains in the state legislature.

Says Jackson: “The real growth comes in the presidential cycle.”

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