McCrory’s first 100 days: ‘Getting his sea legs’ amid change, rancor

McCrory’s first 100 days: ‘Getting his sea legs’ amid change, rancor

McCrory’s first 100 days: ‘Getting his sea legs’ amid change, rancor

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by JIM MORRILL / Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on April 14, 2013 at 10:21 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. --  Republican Pat McCrory couldn’t wait to run North Carolina.

His transition team cranked up weeks before he was even elected governor. He and his cabinet got sworn in a week before his formal inauguration.

But his start hasn’t been as fast – or smooth – as he hoped.

“We didn’t realize how broken things were when we first arrived,” the former Charlotte mayor said last week. “I’m now getting to work on the things I enjoy working on.”

Monday marks McCrory’s 100th day in office. Over three months, he’s made major decisions, stepped into controversy and launched new initiatives while starting to fix what he calls cracks in the state’s foundation.

But the first governor in three decades with no experience in state government has faced a steep learning curve. And he’s often found himself overshadowed by a GOP-controlled General Assembly with a veto-proof majority, forceful personalities and an agenda of its own.

“He’s basically been getting his sea legs,” says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Salisbury’s Catawba College, McCrory’s alma mater.

That hasn’t seemed to bother most North Carolinians.

McCrory enjoys higher job approval than President Barack Obama, either of the state’s two U.S. senators and the legislature, according to an Elon University Poll released last week. Almost twice as many people approve his performance than disapprove.

Some Democrats are less charitable. “He’s an affable guy with limited goals for the state, who is hitched to a very, very conservative legislature,” says Gary Pearce, a one-time aide to former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. “The question is, is he ever going to stand up to them?”

Reaching across party lines

Less than a month after taking office, McCrory sent his chief lobbyist to Senate leaders, urging them to slow down before deciding to reject federal help to expand Medicaid, the health program for the poor. Under the new Affordable Care Act, the federal government was offering to pay the full cost of insuring an additional 500,000 North Carolinians for three years, 90 percent of the cost after that.

Despite the appeal, the Senate passed the measure within hours. McCrory signed it in March, citing problems with the current system. That other Republican governors who once rejected the federal help had decided to take it did not deter him.

It was one of two measures that defined his early weeks.

In February, he fulfilled a campaign promise by signing a bill to repay the federal government for $2.5 billion in jobless benefits. But the bill sharply cut benefits for North Carolina’s unemployed and raised unemployment taxes.

“Those bills were rushed through the legislature without any input from the governor,” says Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat.

Sometimes the GOP legislative agenda dovetails with the governor’s; sometimes it doesn’t. McCrory acknowledges that he’s not always on the same page, particularly with the Senate and its leader, Republican Phil Berger of Eden.

“We’re not always in agreement,” he says. “But I don’t want people around who always agree with me. It’s a very similar style to what I did as mayor.”

Not that McCrory hasn’t reached out.

Most mornings he hosts small groups of lawmakers at home for breakfast. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he’s already visited the legislature several times. Last week, he went over for a private meeting with members of the all-Democratic black caucus.

“I like how open he’s been with the legislators and how accessible he’s been,” says Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat who has joined the governor for breakfast.

Criticism from Charlotte

McCrory has found himself in a brighter spotlight than he was used to.

A January radio interview with conservative Bill Bennett sparked a firestorm of criticism when he took aim at higher education, particularly the University of North Carolina. Education money, he said, should “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

That same month, he told visiting Charlotte officials that any effort to spend local tax money on a controversial streetcar could send the wrong message to legislators who would be asked to spend state money on Charlotte’s light-rail extension.

A McCrory spokesman said the governor was trying to be helpful. But city officials complained of “intimidation.”

In Charlotte that soon gave way to other concerns: a legislative attempt to transfer control of the city’s airport to an independent authority and a request by the city and the Carolina Panthers for tax money to help upgrade Bank of America Stadium.

While pledging support for the Panthers, McCrory made it clear: No state money was available. He declined to get involved in the airport debate, dismissing it as a fight between local “factions.”

McCrory’s response on both issues has drawn criticism from some people in Charlotte, where he’s always enjoyed popularity. “His constituency is different and he’s responding to that,” says Pat Sellers, a Davidson College political scientist.

Managing state bureaucracy has occupied much of McCrory’s first three months.

In January, he appeared with Democratic state Auditor Beth Wood as she reported the state had overspent its Medicaid budget by more than $1.4 billion, in part through bloated administrative costs.

In March, McCrory released a 323-page budget that included $77 million to modernize state information systems, which he called “totally broken.”

Critics say they’ve heard that too often. “What he is in effect doing is blaming his predecessors for everything that has gone wrong,” says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch. “At some point he has to take responsibility for leading the state.”

Others say McCrory has done what he had to. “He’s plugged the holes he inherited,” says Republican consultant Carter Wrenn of Raleigh.

Stepping on toes

McCrory’s proposed $20.6 billion budget focuses on plugging holes and on education. Though it lays out few new programs, it does call for money to reinstate drug courts and to compensate victims of the state’s discredited eugenics program.

But this month McCrory proposed major initiatives in Medicaid and economic development. A transportation proposal is expected this week.

He would replace the current Medicaid program with a managed care plan. He said that would not only be more efficient but also deliver better health care. But the plan was met with skepticism by some health care professionals.

“If the administration’s idea of reform is bringing in out-of-state corporations so they can profit by limiting North Carolina patients’ access to health care and cutting critical medical services … that is not change we can support,” Bob Seligson, head of the N.C. Medical Society, said in a statement.

Last week McCrory proposed restructuring the commerce department and shifting economic development activities to a private corporation. It’s similar to a public-private approach used in other states with Republican governors.

“I would consider that to be a fairly ambitious agenda,” says John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank. “I’m a little puzzled with people saying the governor … isn’t doing much or doesn’t have a very ambitious agenda.”

McCrory says such programs are based on the type of public-private partnerships he advocated in Charlotte.

“It’s got to be a team effort,” he says. “The current effort at doing things is not getting the results we need and I’m not going to accept that.…

“There are a lot of people who want to protect the status quo. … I’m stepping on a lot of toes to get people to stand up and say ‘We’ve got to change.’ ”

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