Lawmakers gaveled in a new session in Raleigh Wednesday. Unlike the brief special sessions held at the end of last year, not much was expected on the first day of the long session beyond ceremony. Lawmakers will gavel in, handle some inside business, and then head back home before coming back for the long session a week or two later. Of course, when it comes to the legislature there’s always the possibility for drama. There’s already a slew of contentious issues awaiting legislators when they begin in earnest. Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper says the relationship between the legislature and new Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, no relation, is what he’ll be watching for.
Chris Cooper: “Is Cooper willing to work with the Republican supermajority and is the Republican supermajority willing to work with Cooper. I think that’s the real big question.”
Governor Cooper has already made moves to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, setting up yet another legal battle. Courts are already weighing challenges to North Carolina district lines and limits on Cooper’s powers passed by the General Assembly. Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn says Medicaid expansion and redistricting reform are two of her biggest priorities.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn: “Unfortunately, so is repealing HB2. I think the fallout from HB2 is going to continue. And we just need to get that behind us. It’s hurt our reputation. We need to move on.”
Another big issue facing lawmakers, particularly out west, is getting its priorities noticed.
Van Duyn: “That’s, I think, been an ongoing problem since the legislature came into existence, that it is kind of Raleigh-centric.”
Western North Carolina lost one of its most powerful advocates when Senator Tom Apodada of Henderson County retired. He’s now a lobbyist and could still impact legislation. But Dr. Cooper says having someone with the kind of power Apodaca had in the legislature was indispensable.
Cooper: “One, it reminds folks in Raleigh that we are part of the state, even if we may be five hours away. But at the same time that our issues may be distinct from the issues that are experienced, certainly in the cities of the middle part of the state, but even in the smaller towns of eastern North Carolina. Western North Carolina has unique policy positions, just by virtue of geography, if nothing else.”
A Republican likely to at least partially fill the void left by Apodaca is Rep. Chuck McGrady, also of Henderson County. Rep. Susan Fisher of Asheville holds leadership positions in the minority Democratic Party. And then there are newer members who will jockey for influence. Republican Mike Clampitt narrowly ousted Democrat Joe Sam Queen to represent parts of Haywood, Jackson, and Swain counties.
Rep. Mike Clampitt: “We’re very economically depressed. Jobs and economic opportunities are an area that I’m looking at. We have an aging population and because of that, I’ve requested to be on the aging committee.”
Landing on committees is a way for even newer lawmakers to gain influence. There’s no telling how long the long session will last, but Cooper says if history is any guide, the window for session to end will be as early as July and as late as September.