- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - When Phil Berger first arrived at the General Assembly in 2001, it was hard to envision the Eden attorney would become one of North Carolina’s most powerful politicians.

Democrats had held uninterrupted power in the Senate since the 1898 elections. Berger was just one of 15 Republicans in the 50-seat Senate. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, was in the middle of his 18-year reign over the chamber.

But Republicans finally took over the Senate in 2010, and Berger, then the minority leader, was elected Senate president pro tempore. Now Berger’s third term as chamber leader appears to make him the longest serving GOP legislator to lead a chamber in state history.

In an interview with The Associated Press as this year’s legislative session begins, Berger, 62, talked about current issues, his political legacy and his evolving views on redistricting reform and leader term limits. Questions and answers were edited for length and AP style.

Q: The first annual release of scores for each North Carolina public school on an A-to-F grading scale occurs this coming week (Berger sponsored legislation creating the scale). What are you anticipating, and do you anticipate many schools receiving Fs?

A: What I’m anticipating is we will finally get to a better level of transparency of how our schools are performing … And of course I think people need to understand what those grades are. And they are grades that are in part how the kids in those schools are doing on standardized tests, but they’re also in part a grade on whether or not these schools are meeting growth expectations for the kids. I think it’s something that parents and the public are entitled to know.

Q: Would you support an independent redistricting commission? (Berger and other Republicans co-sponsored similar commissions while in the minority. Some House members plan to endorse a proposal this week).

A: I have yet to see a so-called independent redistricting commission that is truly independent. … I’m still out there looking for that nonpartisan soul that really has no opinion about politics one way or the other that has an informational background in politics. So I believe that (state Supreme Court) decisions provide North Carolina with a set of criteria that removes many of the problems that folks have complained about with reference to redistricting. I don’t see an independent redistricting commission or any of the proposals that have been floated as improving on the system that we have now.

Q: What about requiring term limits for chamber leaders? You and then-House Speaker Thom Tillis disagreed on details (Tillis, elected a U.S. senator in 2014, sought a four-year limit, while Berger backed eight years).

A: I’m not sure artificial limits are something that from a policy standpoint make a whole lot of sense. The people of the body make their decision as to whom they want the leader to be. The people of the state decide who they want their legislators to be.

Q: But you did support a limit during the 2011 session. What happened?

A: I think what you saw was that that artificial cap wasn’t necessary with reference to the House. I mean, we saw a change, and I think people move on.

Q: Do you feel special responsibility given you’re now the senior leader at the legislature?

A: I think the perspective that you have when you are given the opportunity to serve in a position such as president pro tem is different than the perspective you would have if you are a rank-and-file member. The question is whether or not that perspective is something that means you abandon your strongly held beliefs as to the appropriate role of government, the appropriate role of the legislature within the governmental structure. And I would say the answer to that is no.

Q: What kind of legacy do you think you’re leaving the state and the legislature?

A: This is not personal to me, but I would hope that there would be recognition of what we have been able to accomplish over the past four years and continue that hopefully into the future. If you look at where the state was in January 2011 and just take objective measures … I would hope as time goes on that the policies that we have pursued and adopted have made North Carolina a better place.

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