The process of swearing in members and electing leadership was almost identical to previous years, but the session opens with more questions than usual, driven by the fractious ending to 2016’s unprecedented string of special sessions and an already contentious relationship with the incoming administration of Gov. Roy Cooper.
In their opening remarks, both House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who were re-elected to their posts with unanimous votes, pointed to higher teacher pay, less regulations and further adjustments to taxes as strong possibilities for the long session, but neither offered specifics.
In remarks to reporters afterward, Moore said his focus will be on improving schools and infrastructure and finding ways to extend the economic growth in urban regions to rural areas of the state.
The divide in North Carolina, he said is no longer “west versus east, but it’s more rural and urban.”
Moore said the legislature needs to develop policies that allow the urban areas to continue prospering but not leave rural areas behind. He said there are ongoing discussions about taking another look at how sale taxes are distributed, calling last year’s effort which shifted some of the proceeds to rural counties a first step.
The speaker also opened the door for another attempt at repealing or altering HB2.
“Conversations continue to happen and I think you’ll see some of us trying to find a compromise on that issue,” Moore said. “You won’t see the General Assembly betray its principles.”
Moore said he thinks a compromise could be worked out.
Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, said he thinks there could be an opening on HB2 during the session despite the failed attempt in late December.
“I’m optimistic that now that everyone’s had a chance to take a breath that maybe we can do a full repeal and start over,” he said.
After the ceremonial opening, the legislature adjourned while committee assignments are finalized. The session is scheduled to restart January 25.
Hise on Medicaid expansion
Last week, Cooper set the wheels in motion for Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, a change that could add as many as 600,000 North Carolinians to the program.
Cooper said in addition to adding coverage the move, which would be largely paid for by federal dollars, would add jobs and bolster rural hospitals and medical centers.
But the new governor made the move in defiance of a 2013 law passed by the legislature to prevent expansion by the governor or anyone else without legislative approval.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, said he doesn’t expect the effort by Cooper to be successful. He described the governor’s action as “throwing it to the wind and doing something political.”
“There’s a lot of challenges to what he’s proposed,” Hise said. “This would basically require CMS (the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare) and the State of North Carolina ignoring state and federal law and previous policy they’ve had.”
He said the Cooper administration had erred in several ways, including failure to clearly spell out how to fund the change and a requirement that he inform the Cherokee tribe ahead of the proposed changes.
“There’s a lot of those clear roadblocks,” he said.
Should the outgoing Obama administration fast track the changes, Hise said he’s confident it can be reversed.
“If they’re going to pull off something fairly political, we feel strongly that we have a good relationship with the Trump administration and they’ll undo it very quickly.”
Hise, who as co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee oversees the state health and human services budget, said with changes still unfolding at the federal level, it’s unclear right now how the state will need to adjust its programs.
“A lot of my focus is going be a wait and see on the feds,” he said. “So much hinges on what the Trump administration plans to do with CMS and what the changes of the Affordable Care Act mean for Medicaid in this state.”
Hise said he and other members of the General Assembly are in discussions with federal officials on what will be important to North Carolina as congress prepares to makes major changes in health care policy.
“Until we see what that product is going to be, there’s not a lot of point in making huge jumps in Medicaid and health policy,” Hise said.
Davis to continue opioid fight
One area where the legislature and the new administration could come together is in the fight against opioid addiction.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, who pushed for legislation last session, said he wants to see the state do more.
Davis noted that Cooper has made addressing opioid addiction a top priority and said he’s been in discussions with new Attorney General Josh Stein on stepping up the effort.
“We’re going to really put some strong efforts toward addressing this modern day plague,” he said. “North Carolina has one of the worst problems in the country. It’s something affects every socio-economic status, every race, every demographic. We owe it to our citizens to do what we can to address that.”
Push for rural broadband
Turner said he hopes the legislature moves to improve infrastructure in rural areas will include additional funding for rural broadband.
“A lot of people think that Buncombe County is Asheville, but it’s not,” he said.
“We have a lot of rural areas where you can’t get a cellphone signal, you can’t get high-speed internet and those parts of my community areas are at a disadvantage.”