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North Carolina legislature starts new session in January with emboldened GOP in charge

W Edward Callis III

An expected "Red Wave" never really materialized for the 2022 midterm elections, at least on a national scale. Democrats retained their U.S. Senate majority and won governorships in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Arizona.

But in North Carolina, Republican candidates dominated major showdowns, sweeping the six statewide judicial contests, taking a U.S. Senate race and coming within one House seat of an outright super-majority in the 120-seat chamber, where three-fifths of those present are needed to override a veto.

So, naturally, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) didn't sound too concerned when he and his state Senate counterpart, Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) spoke with reporters after Election Day last month.

"We now have 71 seats in the House," Moore said. "Would I like 72? Of course I would like 72. But I will tell you that for all intents and purposes, we have a governing super-majority."

He added: "We have a handful of Democrats who work with us, we have some new members coming in and I feel completely confident that — should we need to override vetoes — we'll be able to do our part on the House as well."

Republicans won enough of the 50 seats in the state Senate — 30 — to override a veto without any help from Democrats.

Abortion rights advocates fear lack of federal protection

Turnout data show North Carolina Republicans succeeded in getting more of their voters to the polls this fall, according to Chris Cooper, a Professor of Political Science at Western Carolina University.

"The counties with the biggest turnout in 2022 tended to be the Republican counties," Cooper said. "So, there were just 13 counties statewide where Democratic turnout, in other words, as a percentage of their own voters, surpassed Republican turnout."

There was no shortage of defining issues this midterm election to motivate voters across the political spectrum: inflation, voting rights and abortion.

"What North Carolina needs to do is pass some legislation that will stop that and will actually save the lives of unborn babies, who are humans and deserve human rights," said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative and Christian pro-life advocacy organization.

Fitzgerald was decrying a recent report that indicate women who live in more restrictive states are coming to North Carolina for abortions, which allows the procedure up to the 20th week of pregnancy.

"I believe the right limit is when you can detect a heartbeat," Fitzgerald said.

Moore has said he would support a so-called heartbeat bill, banning abortions after about six weeks. And Berger told the Associated Press in August that he would support a ban after the first trimester, or about 12 weeks.

Tara Romano, executive director of Pro-Choice North Carolina, said abortion rights supporters in the state see restrictive bills like this come up every legislative session.

But now there is no longer federal protection for abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade in June, eliminating a legal precedent that had stood for 50 years. Still, Romano argued public opinion is on the side of reproductive rights, as seen in states like Kansas, Kentucky and Montana where voters upheld abortion protections by referendum.

"I don't think anyone can make the case that North Carolina is somehow uniquely more anti-abortion than those states," Romano said, arguing that legislative Republicans, and conservative Democrats who might side with them on abortion restrictions, should take note.

Public opinion could dissuade legislators from pursuing further restrictions

Romano is correct to an extent, according to David McLennan, the director of the Meredith College Poll.

"Public opinion is not for something very severe in terms of restrictions," McLennan said, referring to results of a poll he conducted in April, which included a question about abortion. "And that could be very constraining for even Republicans who may want to either ban or severely limit abortion rights in the legislative session."

The Meredith poll showed a little more than 52% of North Carolinians support the kinds of rights that had been protected under Roe. Close to 40% support more severe restrictions, with 19% of those favoring an outright ban with some exceptions, and a little more than 9% supporting a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Potential common ground on Medicaid expansion

Last month, Moore and Berger told reporters they needed to confer with their members before setting their legislative agenda, including whether to pursue further abortion restrictions. But Berger made it clear he will push for conservative budgetary and fiscal policies.

"I continue to believe that our tax rates are too high," Berger said.

That sets up a potential flashpoint in budget talks with Democrats. Rep. Robert Reives, Democratic leader in the state House, said the key to economic success is less about corporate and individual tax rates and more about spending on workforce development.

"You beef up your public education system, you definitely lay into beefing up your community colleges," Reives said in an interview with WUNC.

The two parties could find common ground on Medicaid expansion. Before the midterms state lawmakers came as close as ever to agreeing on legislation that could extend federally subsidized health care insurance to hundreds of thousands of low-income North Carolinians.

Sealing that deal might depend more on agreement between House and Senate Republicans than between the two major parties.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.