The long session of the legislature is starting to get interesting. The sides are drawing battle plans and they are not along partisan lines. The forces driving the political debate are: urban versus rural, free-marketeers versus pragmatists, and local government verses  Big Government.

Once again, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger knows where he wants to go. He’s an abashed free marketeer who wants to reduce the size and scope of state government. He’s using a starve-the-beast strategy, cutting taxes with no intention of replacing the revenue. His latest plan cuts the corporate income tax rate to 3%, costing the state an additional $500 million. To make up the shortfall, legislators will need to cut somewhere.

Berger’s not getting in the way of his power hungry members who want to reshape local politics in their districts. He’s like the general who sees his path to victory and will tolerate excesses as the spoils of war. He cares more about imposing his free market ideals on state government than he cares about who’s controlling county commissions and city councils.

Berger also sides with the rural areas at the expense of the cities. He’s supporting a sales tax transfer that shifts money from urban areas to rural ones and he wants to restrict the amount of incentive money that goes to Charlotte and the Triangle. The way he sees it, urban areas have the amenities and resources to attract industry. Rural counties that are losing population and jobs need enticements to help jump start economies that have been lagging for more than a decade.

House Speaker Tim Moore, for his part, is more pragmatist than ideologue. He’s certainly conservative, but he’s skeptical of the Senate’s moves. He passed a bipartisan incentives package that the Senate essentially shelved.

He’s been relatively mum on the big government redistricting bills that passed the Senate and are now in the House, so we don’t know how he’ll fall on those bills. I suspect he doesn’t like them much but probably sees them as leverage to cut deals on other matters. Moore seems more intent on making government work than remaking it in an ideological mold.

On the rural-urban divide, Moore probably sides with rural folks, though he hasn’t really shown his cards yet. His home county, Cleveland, got hit hard when manufacturing started leaving the state. He knows that a lot of rural communities are in crisis and need help. The only place they’ll get it is from the government, because they certainly aren’t going to get it from the free market.

Pat McCrory is again finding himself fighting the Senate on almost every point. A former big city mayor, he’s opposed to the sales tax transfer and Berger’s incentive priorities. He thinks the legislature should stay out of local governments’ affairs and let counties and towns operate as they see fit. However, he has limited power to do much. Local bills don’t require his signature so he can’t stop the redistricting. He’ll need to form an alliance with Moore if he wants to stop or slow the Senate’s economic agenda. 

The Democrats, unfortunately, have been left out. House Minority Leader Larry Hall announced bills to extend early voting and allow student IDs to be used as voter IDs, but that’s just a side show playing to the base. The measures are dead in the water. Democrats would be smarter to get involved in the action. The legislation coming down the pike in the House is dividing the Republicans. Savvy Democrats could cut deals to make themselves more relevant in spite of their heavily minority status.

Two years ago, Phil Berger and the Senate ran over then-Speaker Thom Tillis and Pat McCrory. Tim Moore is a different type of leader. He’s more measured with less bravado than Tillis and he’s got the smarts, experience, and savvy that McCrory lacks. Moore and McCrory are more pragmatic than Berger, but Moore, like Berger, hails from a rural county. And while McCrory comes out of local government, both the legislative leaders have built their political careers in Raleigh. The dynamics might shape the way state government looks for years to come. 

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