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Now In Charge

News & Observer
Tags: news | opinion – editorial | staff editorial

North Carolina’s Legislative Building was still standing yesterday, with the cafeteria still serving the day’s traditional fare of fried squash, the plants still flourishing, sort of, the halls still walked by staffers. The foundation seemed sturdy.

But in the new year, other kinds of changes are coming. Republicans on Tuesday scored an historic victory in winning majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time since 1898.

The once-minority party held power in the House briefly in the 1990s, but for nearly 100 of those last 102 years, Democrats have ruled, and often, so far as the GOP was concerned, ruled harshly and without regard to even the views of Republicans.

Now Republicans will occupy the House speakership, the Senate president pro tem spot and all key committee chairmanships. In addition, they’ll be in charge of redistricting, following the 2010 census, which means they will redraw lines for electoral districts and conjure in the process districts that will be advantageous to their party’s legislative and congressional candidates. Yes, just as the Democrats have done in the past.

Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, leader of that chamber’s Republicans, is likely to be the president pro tem, with great powers over what happens to legislation once it’s introduced or before. In the House, the same can be said of the speakership, likely to go to either to Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the minority leader, or Rep. Thom Tillis of Cornelius, in Mecklenburg County. Sen. Marc Basnight of Manteo, after long service as the pro tem, and Speaker Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill will relinquish those positions early next year.

North Carolinians must hope the Republicans conduct business openly, avoiding backroom deal-making and exclusionary tactics, and not allowing the voices of special interests (that now will pour big contributions into the GOP) to diminish those of ordinary citizens. Indeed, Republicans have complained for years that Democrats kept them out of the loop and acted without regard for fairness and openness.

The budget crisis will hover over everything the legislature does this year, with a shortfall of $3 billion to $4 billion. It’s clear state government will have to make drastic cuts. But Republicans must try to protect those things that have been of historic and substantial value, notably, for example, the public university system and the community colleges. Cutting waste and doing a little belt-tightening is one thing; gutting human services programs that help people in need or risking the reputation of the university system are something else entirely.

The Republicans earned their victory and the power that comes with it. The outsiders are now insiders. Now comes the hard part, dealing with a crushing budget gap and working with a Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue, who will have budget priorities of her own. Neither the governor, a Democratic power in the legislature before her election in 2008, nor GOP leaders can afford stalemate. Most importantly, the people cannot.

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