There are plenty of side issues worthy of attention as the North Carolina legislative session passes the three-month mark. But make no mistake, this session is primarily about what legislative sessions are usually about: money.
The bottom line is that Gov. Bev Perdue wants to keep most of a temporary penny sales tax in place come July 1, and the Republicans who took majorities in both the House and Senate last November don't. By the governor's numbers, it's a difference of more than $800 million, and the GOP makes up much of that ground by cutting education.
They'd do away with teacher assistants in second and third grades. Class sizes would increase, and the university system has said it would shed more than 3,000 jobs and cut courses, making it harder for students to graduate on time.
"The majority," state Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, said this week, "is much more interested in telling people that they've made cuts and haven't raised taxes than they are in ensuring that we provide essential services."
But that's essentially what Republicans ran on last year: cutting spending, even if it's painful. House Republicans are almost done with their budget, and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said his caucus is ready to "look (everyone) in the eye and vote on it." Then, he said, "we're prepared to defend it."
They'll get the chance. Perdue has taken to vetoing Republican bills, setting up a multibillion-dollar showdown as the state heads toward the July start of a new fiscal year, when a new budget needs to be in place.
Something will have to give, because Republicans have promised—repeatedly—not to extend the temporary sales tax. But they have taken a piecemeal approach to bringing new revenue into the budget.
A key House committee voted this week to increase a slew of court filing fees and to begin charging for driver education tests and ferry rides on the coast. Committee members also want to increase the cost of getting a GED and, in a separate measure, may do away with a tax credit for some of the state's poorest people.
"They're willing," Ross said, "to impose fees on some of our citizens who are least able to afford those fees."
How this all shakes out will play a big part in the 2012 governor's race. Perdue seems to be in a standoff with Republican legislators now, but there's always room for compromise while the Legislature is in session. And the two sides agree on several things.
Both are willing to cut the state's corporate income tax rate, something Perdue has already included in her budget. Both are ready to end an existing, but temporary, income-tax surcharge on people who make more than $100,000 a year. But it's unclear, even to seasoned observers, how the two sides will bridge the rest of the gap.
Beyond the budget, Republicans have moved quickly on several other campaign promises. They've voted to lift a state cap on charter schools and to further ease regulations on schools that take public funding. Some in the party, including House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, are pushing further, arguing for tax credits that nearly amount to private school vouchers, or publicly financed scholarships for private school tuition.
Legislation requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls hasn't made it to the House floor yet, but it's expected to.
Republicans are passing medical malpractice reforms that will make it difficult—some say nearly impossible—to sue emergency room doctors. The bill would also cap pain-and-suffering jury awards at $500,000 and give pharmaceutical companies immunity from lawsuits, so long as they have FDA approval for their drugs and didn't get it by lying.
They're pushing to open the North Carolina coast for oil drilling and to study the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or shale "fracking," which uses water and caustic chemicals to break up deep-lying rock and release natural gas. They're cracking down on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, cutting its budget and pushing for fewer regulations on businesses.
All in all, the GOP is "tipping the balance in favor of people with money and power," according to Chris Fitzsimon, executive director for the progressive watchdog group NC Policy Watch. Republicans are "using the budget crisis to remake state government philosophically," Fitzsimon said.
The GOP has also focused on gun rights, moving quickly on various expansions, though those efforts seem to have slowed lately as the budget takes center stage. An expansion of the state's self-defense "Castle Doctrine" has passed the Senate. A bill to allow licensed gun owners to carry in public parks has passed the House. A third bill to permit gun owners to keep weapons locked in their cars at work has been sitting in a House committee since February, perhaps because the N. C. Chamber of Commerce has expressed concerns about it.
Potential constitutional amendments to re-outlaw gay marriage—which is already unrecognized in North Carolina—are also sitting in committees. So is a bill that would repeal the state's Racial Justice Act, which was put in place in 2009 to allow people on death row to appeal their cases by proving race played a part in their conviction.
More radical Republican proposals to let the state coin its own money and to ban any "foreign law that would violate constitutional rights," such as Islamic Shariah laws, also haven't made it out of committee. Such fringe causes probably won't move forward. The Republican leadership needs its political capital for a budget showdown with the governor.
Perdue has vetoed five GOP bills already this session, signaling a willingness to fight back over philosophical and financial differences. One of these bills would have extended unemployment benefits for 37,000 people, but Republicans tied it to a measure that would have hamstrung the governor in coming budget negotiations.
If the stalemate continues, Democrats will need to hold their caucus together in the House to block Republican overrides. The GOP has a veto-proof majority in the Senate but would need to peel away four Democratic votes to overturn in the House. With Republicans controlling the redistricting process even as work continues on the budget, there could be an incentive for some Democrats to break ranks.
So far, that hasn't happened. Which brings us back to the budget debate. Democrats argue North Carolina is a great place to live, in large part because of the state's historic commitment to education. Republicans say it's worth shedding thousands, even tens of thousands, of state jobs to give businesses the tax relief they want to grow private sector jobs.
To pass a budget, they will have to find middle ground.