RALEIGH — The second floor of the Legislative Building in Raleigh is one of the most powerful places in the state of North Carolina. It is where House and Senate leaders work and where legislative priorities are determined. At the corner of the building is where much of that power is concentrated. Legislators, lobbyists and anyone else who wants to get something done in North Carolina must go to this corner office and see Senate Leader Phil Berger. The same can be said for his House counterpart, Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain).
Berger, a lawyer from Eden, is entering his 12th term in the chamber and will start his 10th year as president pro tempore when he is formally elected to lead the Senate again on Wednesday. He is entering the 2021 long session with the challenges of COVID-19, a governor he is often at odds with, and problems he wants to help solve.
One of the first orders of business will be to determine what to do with the allocation of money included in the federal COVID omnibus package. Berger said legislative leaders had begun conversations with the executive branch to get recommendations. He said the goal would be to have the federal portion done some time in February.
Legislators also struck an agreement on rural broadband funding, with the General Assembly set to allocate $30 million to the GREAT Grant program. Service providers in November sounded alarms over funding, ultimately driving Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly to make a deal for those grants to be funded to continue to build out the state’s broadband capacity.
The state budget process begins on the Senate side this year, something Berger indicated the chamber is already talking about. Berger said Sens. Bent Jackson, Kathy Harrington and Ralph Hise, the three incoming co-chairs of the Senate Appropriations Committee, are already in the process of working on budget items.
A topic Berger immediately addressed was a recent infrastructure report from the Transportation Oversight Committee. He said they would look at the recommendations, agreeing that there is a funding shortfall related to transportation.
“I suspect there will continue to be some discussion about whether a bond is something which will need to be taken care of,” Berger said.
The report Berger references was authored by the N.C. FIRST Commission, which was established in March of 2019 to advise the state’s Transportation secretary on a strategy for sustainable long-range transportation investment.
The state’s fiscal standing is one of the main reasons Berger and Republicans took over the chamber in 2011. In that year, the state faced a $2.6 billion budget gap. Since that time, the state turned a shortfall into a surplus of billions — putting over $1 billion into the state’s Savings Reserve Fund in addition to other savings.
Yet the coronavirus pandemic has Berger and other state leaders cautious in this year’s session.
Berger said that in addition to federal money the state is expected to receive, finances within the state are also uncertain.
“We still are being told by our nonpartisan staff that they don’t feel comfortable giving us a revenue projection from our state resources,” Berger said, referring to the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division.
However, Berger did say the budget process would move forward and that he expected any other resources that enter the state would be “additional.”
Next, Berger talked about his relationship with the executive branch and Cooper, who was sworn into his second term as governor on Saturday, Jan. 9.
“You know, we had an election. A good number of the issues the governor treated as priorities were front and center in those elections. In the most competitive and contested areas, our candidates ran on their record, to the extent they were incumbents, and the ones who weren’t incumbents were accused, with Democratic advertising, of supporting everything that we had done. And yet in those races, our candidates came out ahead,” Berger said.
Berger further stated that he didn’t want to let some policy disagreements stymie the entire budgeting process the way it did in 2019 and said there has been more direct communication with the executive branch.
“So I think there’s a need for us to concentrate, in terms of the budget, on those things where we can find common ground.”
He opened the door to the possibility of the “mini budget” process, in which certain areas of government received funding, saying it was a way to deliver on consensus items to receive funding.
“I think there are some things that got left undone. We actually passed raises for teachers, but unfortunately, that got caught up in politics in ways that it shouldn’t have. But I think there should be a high degree of confidence and comfort that we did not allow politics to stop the ordinary functioning of state government.” he said.
In 10 years as Senate leader, Berger has ushered in many large changes, like comprehensive tax reform, reforming spending, making changes to education and a host of others. He also made clear he doesn’t plan on going anywhere.
“If you’re at a point where you look around and don’t see problems that need to be addressed then I question whether you’re looking very seriously,” Berger stated emphatically. “So there are still things that need to be done. Our tax system is much better than it was in January 2011, but there are still things that need to be improved. I think the regulatory climate is much better than it was 10 years ago, but there are still some things that need to be done to enhance the private sector.”
One of the most politically fraught topics, and one Berger said a lot work still needs to be done in, is education.
He said the fact that many children are unable to read by the time they finish third grade shows the system has failed many children.
“I’m just going to say it; it’s a failure of the state to live up to what our constitution requires as far as educating our children. I think we need to do more.”
Berger said that could mean revamping the Read to Achieve program. He said they tried to do this but were met with a veto by Cooper. “I don’t think it was a disagreement over policy; I think it was politics” he said.
Berger also said he thinks there’s room to give parents more say in how the state funded education is delivered to their children.
“I don’t care how strong an individual is as an advocate for ‘education.’ They cannot take the place, in my opinion, of a parent in terms of understanding what’s best for that parent’s child or understanding whether or not they are actually receiving the opportunity to get a good education.”
Berger said that he didn’t see the biggest issue in education to be monetary, citing the increases in the past several budgets in education spending.
“I know that there are some folks out there who are pushing for more dollars to be spent in education. We’ll look at where the needs are, and I think you’ll find that this General Assembly will provide adequate funding for those real needs. The bigger problem we have in education has to do with the fact that we’ve had kids out of school [during the pandemic] and that we are going to be dealing with the adverse consequences of the lockdowns, as far as schools are concerned, for a long time,” Berger said.
“While it’s bad for the state, it’s even worse for many of these students, particularly those students who are in the early part of their education. We already had a problem of kids not learning how to read, which in my opinion is the key to a child’s success. I think the failure to have children, particularly in the early grades, in the classroom was so unnecessary,” he added.
Berger finished by saying that continuing to keep schools shut down is “a terrible mistake that is not going to be borne by the adults in the system, but going to be borne by the children who are not getting what we have an obligation to provide them.”