It was no doctored photo op when Gov. Pat McCrory stood beside physicians wearing their white coats on stairs brightened by the midday sun and leading out of the Executive Mansion.
McCrory brought in the state's leading medical groups to show they're serious about sticking with his administration's Medicaid reform proposal after the Senate budget unceremoniously dumped that plan and replaced it with one lacking many details. The event gave McCrory more credibility to push back on fellow Republicans in the Senate and demand his ideas receive due consideration.
"Right now, this is the plan on the table and it's time for that plan to be discussed and voted on," McCrory said at the Mansion event last week. "I'm looking for reform, not stagnation, and the current state is not acceptable to me or the people behind me."
The event is the latest sign McCrory, in his second annual legislative session, is making a more concerted effort to protect his turf and challenge legislative leaders in his own party to embrace more of his ideas. Earlier that day, a senior administration official accused a powerful House member publicly of bullying his agency and trying to land a high-paying position on a board appointed by the governor.
McCrory also has been criticizing the Senate budget at public appearances and in interviews. He says the Senate's large teacher pay raise, while laudable, would eliminate thousands of teacher assistants to pay for it. In his own government budget, he has proposed a smaller raise this year and salary overhaul over time.
"A huge one-year teacher pay raise looks good on the surface, but its impact on where and how that money comes from could have a major negative impact on the classroom," McCrory told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
The former Charlotte mayor disputes claims he wasn't assertive with the legislature in 2013 during his first year in office, pointing to several pieces of legislation he wanted that passed, including tax reform.
What's new this year, McCrory said in another interview last month, is that Cabinet members are now firmly in place - and presumably have a better handle on the political game in Raleigh. When the 2013 session began, Cabinet secretaries had been on the job for a few weeks.
Critics argue McCrory failed to stand up last year to hard-line conservatives at the General Assembly who passed bills on abortion and some election changes that he says he didn't seek. As mayor and during the 2012 gubernatorial campaign, McCrory often portrayed himself as a pragmatist and moderate.
"I think he was far from assertive," said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal-leaning North Carolina Policy Watch adding that "he's talking a little tougher (now), but I'm not yet convinced he's acting much different as he did last year."
Even partisan allies of McCrory at the General Assembly were flummoxed last year at times by what they called a lack of or delay in communication from the governor and his administration about his legislative requests, leading to dust-ups.
The Senate's relationship with the governor is continuing to mature, said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. He pointed out that differences were worked out this year in short order with McCrory on bills related to fracking and third-grade reading standards.
"I think we're actually in a better place than we've been in the past," Berger said.
But rough spots remain. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, a budget-writer on health issues, said McCrory's administration was to blame for the conflict with the Senate over Medicaid reform. The governor's proposal, Hise said, didn't meet the requirements laid out in last year's budget that asked him to come up with a plan. It fails to save enough money and treat patients for all types of services, he said.
"Making an agreement, then coming back with something different, doesn't lead to very good relationships, either," Hise said.
Lawmakers still hold the upper hand with McCrory. Legislative Republicans hold veto-proof majorities, so if they stand largely united they can pass whatever they wish and can't be stopped.
At the Executive Mansion event, McCrory said it would be wrong to talk about whether he'd veto a budget that contains the Senate's Medicaid overhaul when good discussions with House and Senate members are ongoing. The House version of the budget unveiled this week is expected to contain more items to the governor's liking than the Senate plan.
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