Phil Berger, leader of the state Senate and arguably the state’s most powerful politician, is a radical, but unlike Republican Freedom Caucus members in Congress, he’s also disciplined.
Berger exercises quiet influence. He does not get caught up in social issue fights. Instead, he relentlessly supports tax cuts while starving public schools and lavishing money on vouchers for private schools.
So it was a surprise this week to see the Senate leader denied on something he insisted on having – more casinos in North Carolina.
After bringing along his Republican Senate colleagues, he tried to strong-arm House Republicans. But enough of them objected that Berger had to concede that the casino expansion would not be part of the state budget.
Promoting casino gambling is a strange priority for a conservative Republican, and it’s murky why Berger became the frontman for the effort. There was lobbying pressure and heavy donations from casino interests, and one of the four proposed casinos would be in Berger’s Rockingham County. But those factors don’t fully explain why he so heavily invested his political capital in the cause.
While it’s unclear why Berger wanted more casinos so badly, it is clear why he didn’t get them. After getting his way for so long, the Senate leader discovered the limits of his power. He can’t dismiss Christian conservatives, and some Republican lawmakers now are willing to challenge Berger’s dictates.
Under Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, the legislative process has grown increasingly closed as the leaders proceed with a veto-proof majority. Public hearings are limited, experts in areas affected by legislation aren’t consulted, Democratic lawmakers and the governor are left out or ignored.
In the push to expand gambling to as many as four new counties, the secrecy and disregard for public opinion extended into the targeted counties where local residents were unaware of the plans.
Now even some Republican lawmakers are feeling steamrolled.
Rep. Mike Clampitt, a Republican representing Jackson, Swain, and Haywood counties, sent his constituents a remarkable newsletter that shed light on the tension between Berger’s dictates and lawmakers’ independence.
The newsletter described a meeting between a group of House Republicans and Berger regarding the proposed state budget. When the Senate leader was asked if casinos would be in the budget, Clampitt wrote, “Mr. Berger made the declaration that it would be – period.”
When it was suggested that casino expansion might gain more support if it was offered and debated as a separate bill, Clampitt described the Senate leader’s reaction:
“Mr. Berger then stated that he was giving an information meeting and was not interested in debate, questions or amendments. This meeting lasted an hour, and it was very disturbing the way I and my colleagues were talked down to, bullied, disrespected, intimidated, and threatened..”
But when Republican opponents to casino expansion stood firm, Berger had to blink. Casinos were dropped from the budget.
At a news conference announcing the budget agreement, Berger appeared more aggravated than contrite. He said the casinos would help struggling rural counties, but that opponents were emotionally committed to opposing casino expansion.
“It was just pretty clear that the facts were almost beside the point as to what those proposals would do for rural areas,” he said. ”I’ve learned that in an environment like that, you’re unlikely to make any progress.”
Berger also learned that he still works in a democracy. Proposed changes should be debated and consensus should be reached.
“I do think that the important thing was and is to have public discussion and for people to have an opportunity to know that it’s something that’s being considered,” he said. “To the extent that that was not done, I think that could have prevented the bill, er the (casino) provisions, from being successful.”
Berger is still powerful, but, as it became clear this week, not all powerful.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com