RALEIGH — It was the middle of the night and lobbyist Connie Wilson awoke with a start.
"I woke up wondering, 'What have I missed? What have I missed?'" she recalls. "Nobody has ever seen it move this fast."
In its first two months, the N.C. legislature has moved at a dizzying clip that has lobbyists and lawmakers scrambling. Setting the pace are Republican leaders intent on their agenda and confident in their numbers.
"We pretty much know how votes are going to go on these things, so we go ahead and move them," says House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius.
Republicans who long chafed under Democratic control are running the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. With strong majorities in the House and Senate, they're flexing their muscle on issues from charter schools to election laws to health care.
And they've barely begun on a promised overhaul of government spending.
Critics accuse them of pushing an ideological agenda, not the job creation they promised. And a process that a former management consultant like Tillis calls "efficient" has frustrated Democrats and others who say it often precludes deliberative debate.
"Important bills are being rushed," says Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham. "There seems no reason why bills of this importance couldn't be slowed up."
On the fast track
A House bill last week showed the different perspectives.
The measure would enact several election law changes, including a requirement for voters to show photo identification. Republicans introduced the bill Monday night and scheduled a committee meeting the next afternoon. Some expected the panel to vote that day and send the bill to the full House later in the week.
But after two hours of impassioned citizen comments, and a debate among lawmakers that went on nearly as long, the panel chairman decided to carry the debate to this week.
Republicans say that showed their willingness to slow down and listen. Critics say it just underscored the haste with which the bill is moving.
"When called on it by enough people, things slow down," says Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch. "I honestly believe there's a strategy of having so many bad and controversial bills moving at one time, it's hard for the public to have a clear understanding of what's going on here."
The ID bill isn't the first on a fast track. On the second day of the session, a House committee passed a bill challenging the federal health care law. It cleared the House a week later and then the Senate, only to be vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue. It was her second veto of the session, twice as many as she has wielded before.
Tillis argues that the voter ID bill shows the process is more open than it was under Democrats since he joined the House in 2007.
"A bill with that level of controversy was almost never carried over [for more debate] in the four years I was here," he says.
Complex, diverse bills
The whirlwind pace comes despite the fact that half as many bills have been introduced this year than at a comparable point in the last long session, in part because of new limits on how many bills that House members can introduce. But many are complex.
"There's a lot more complicated stuff going on, a lot more big ideas," says Gerry Cohen, the long-time chief bill drafter. "I've had more work than in a decade or so."
Among the more than 720 bills filed: measures to cap malpractice awards; lift the cap on charter schools; force some cities to "de-annex" certain neighborhoods; allow guns in parks and workplaces; reduce community college loans; and offer a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Some Republicans have introduced bills calling on the state to declare its sovereignty and study having its own currency. Others want to overturn a ban on plastic bags in the Outer Banks that business owners say is costly and onerous.
At a news conference last week, state Democratic Chairman David Parker called such bills a "diversion of energy away from the serious business of creating jobs."
Republicans say they're working on a jobs package that could include business tax cuts or changes in the tax code. They also point to efforts such as those that would cut regulations on business, reduce awards in some lawsuits and overturn a health law they call a "job-killer."
"Every one of those is a jobs bill," says Tillis. "It may be because (Democrats) don't have a lot of experience with jobs bills they can't identify them."
Jobs and economy pledge
Jobs weren't Republicans' only promise.
They pledged to balance the budget without raising taxes and reduce some tax rates. In their first 100 legislative days, they promised other things including lifting the charter school cap, passing the voter ID and passing a constitutional amendment to limit the taking of property by eminent domain.
"There were two focuses," says GOP Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County. "One was jobs. Clearly that was number one. Two, there were a set of commitments (for) those first 100 days. Most of those other items were fairly consistent with that."
In some ways, the Republican push on multiple fronts reflects a century of pent-up frustration with a Democratic majority that rarely gave their initiatives a hearing. Tillis acknowledges proposals like the currency measure - which he declined to say whether he supports - but insists the focus remains jobs.
As if to emphasize that, he fingers the red wristband that says "Think Jobs." During the campaign he handed them out and urged candidates to snap them anytime they were tempted to talk about something other than the economy.
"Any bill that would make me snap my jobs and economy band they know has to wait," Tillis says.