House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy
Analysis of H298 committee vote exposes generation gap among legislative Republicans
The vote in the House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy says a lot. It is not just about the issue (H-298) of renewable energy. It vividly illustrated the importance of political and ideological alignments in the state House of Representatives specifically and the state legislature in general. It was a very rare moment indeed, when intra-party differences spilled out of the secret party caucuses – where the fate of legislation is debated and decided while curtained from the public’s view – and into the public arena exposing differences in ideology, philosophy and personality. What it revealed was a sharp generational divide in the Republican majority – particularly in the House of Representatives – and the degree to which ideology and pragmatism clash.
ON THE ISSUE: Energy and the environment are issues where political party, or typical conservative-Republican /liberal-progressive-Democratic outlooks, often have little to do with how legislators stand. More relevant is their outlook (ideological vs. fiscal vs. libertarian conservatives along with pro-business progressives or pro-labor liberals). Democrats hung together in this vote – but they represent a wide range of outlooks. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, is probably the most staunch environmentalist in the legislature. Susie Hamilton, among the most pro-business Democrats. This is an issue were the two meet. Renewable energy, particularly solar, is establishing a strong and growing presence in the energy sector of the state’s economy. It isn’t merely embraced by ardent conservationists and environmental radicals, but the business sector in general – particularly the state’s major utilities.
And this is where the committee vote reflects differences among Republicans. Differences not just on this issue, but distinctions that could have an impact on critical legislation as the tough issue and budget choices get made in late May and through June. The GOP members of the committee who voted against Rep. Hagar’s repeal of the Renewable Energy Standards represented districts and constituencies were renewable energy is a part of the economic base. Davidson County hosts one of the state’s largest solar installations; Cabarrus and Cleveland counties are home to several substantial solar projects. Duke Energy, with its headquarters in Charlotte, just announced a major renewable energy initiative with Google to be the focus of a sustainable energy rate offering it is developing. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory attended the Google-Duke announcement. Further, Charlotte is seeking to develop and brand itself as a regional energy hub, using the community’s substantial energy resources along with the academic setting and offerings at UNC Charlotte.
Like Hager, those supporting his bill come from the ideological wing of the GOP majority in the House – who today make up the majority of the majority. Seven of the 13 representatives who sided with Hager are first-term legislators. Three more, including Hager, are only in their second term while two others have three term’s experience. The only senior legislator to side with Hager was Julia Howard – who’s in her 13th term. Think of it as a total of 25 terms experience in the General Assembly among those 13 House members contrasted with the 36 terms of total experience among just the six Republicans who opposed Hager’s bill. While experience in the legislative process is always an element, the critical factor here is generational. Hagar and his allies in this vote clearly represent one generation of GOP legislators – a group that largely came in since 2009 with a strong ideological identity and agenda -- while those Republicans who opposed his bill represent a conservative brand of politics for sure – but also a more pragmatic one.
As the legislative session slides into May and June – when key issues that have been simmering since January start to bubble and budget skirmishes escalate into battles – dealing with the GOP generation gap will likely be the most challenging impediment facing the policy goals of the three most powerful Republicans in the state: Gov. Pat McCrory; House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President ProTem Phil Berger. Their agendas are similar but not in lock-step. All three are said to have ambitious eyes on Washington (Could McCrory be a vice presidential pick in 2016? Will it be Berger or Tillis on the GOP ballot for U.S. Senate in 2014?). How they manage the differing factions within their own party – or forge critical coalitions of votes beyond it – will determine success in 2013 and could provide a stepping stone to prized achievements and ambitions in 2014 and beyond.