The Associated Press November 8, 2010, 10:43AM ET

NC GOP will have to balance fiscal, social issues

Republicans who captured the state House and Senate held by Democrats almost nonstop for more than a century ran on a 10-point plan of action that contained everything from reducing small business regulations to eliminating the cap on charter schools.

Now, some leaders of the victorious GOP majority are boiling down their immediate work to completing two jobs next year - closing a $3 billion to $4 billion budget gap next year without raising tax rates and equitably redrawing legislative and congressional districts.

"We've got to live up to the promises that we've made over the past 12 months," said House Minority Whip Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, who is running for speaker.

Nonetheless, there will be a lot of pressure within the winning GOP caucus and interest groups to broaden their policy scope, and to do it quickly. Lawmakers waiting a decade to get other pet issues heard and voted upon may cause friction if they are put off. Those could include a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, or changes to how each chamber conducts business compared to Democratic rule.

"If we're not to going to show that we're different, then we're going to be home in two years," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, a longtime critic of the rules in the House chamber that limited debate and quashed legislation.

Tillis said he's open to such changes, but some ancillary items outside the action plan may need to be put aside temporarily while handling other larger tasks. "Until that mission is accomplished, I don't think we have much of a capacity in six months to do much more than that," he added. "It's got to be a matter of setting priorities."

The greatest challenges facing the 2011 General Assembly will be devising a budget for the next two years and redrawing House, Senate and congressional districts after the once-a-decade census. Republicans will have at least 30 Senate seats and 66 House seats when the Legislature reconvenes in January - strong enough majorities to push through their spending plans and maps.

Making good on promises not to raise tax rates - or possibly reduce them - certainly will raise the ire of Democrats and their allies. With federal stimulus money dried up, the only way to close the shortfall would seemingly involve large spending cuts, chiefly in education and health care, which comprised 78 percent of the state's $19 billion budget this year.

That could lead to more crowded classrooms, fewer supplies and thousands of laid-off educators.

"If they try to dismantle public education and the university system in North Carolina, they'll have a fight on their hands," promised outgoing House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, who is weighing whether to seek the minority leader's job. Republicans may have to lower Medicaid reimbursement rates for doctors and eliminate optional Medicaid benefits.

"The depth of cuts to in health care to make up a $4 billion deficit would be devastating," said Adam Searing, a health care advocate for the liberal-leaning North Carolina Justice Center.

But Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph, the House speaker from 1995 to 1998, said the voters elected the GOP in the majority because the state hasn't kept its fiscal house in order: "Government has just got to slim down."

Republicans also must seek to develop a budget that could withstand a potential veto threat by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. But she may give the GOP cover for deep cuts and creative spending, having signaled willingness already to consider cuts of up to 15 percent in state agencies.

"Budget cuts are never easy. Everybody's got some skin in the game," Perdue said recently.

While the economy dominated the vote, it would be a mistake to expect the Republican agenda to be solely about economics, said John Hood of the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation.

"The fact that swing voters were mostly influenced by fiscal issues does not mean there is a lack of voters who came to the polls this year thinking about abortion, or marriage or eminent domain," Hood said.

Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, has filed bills repeatedly to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to limit marriage to a man and a woman, only to see them die in committee. But Forrester said, "I'm fairly encouraged that I can get this heard this year."

House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, another candidate for speaker, suggested on election night that state Republicans will need to find a balance between the factions in their caucus for the next two years.

Said Stam, "All we have to do is govern from the middle."


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