Lawmakers looking for an exit strategy from NC budget stalemate

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Kirk Ross – Carolina Public Press

After another short week with limited votes and no progress on a budget deal, General Assembly leaders have started to wrap up this year’s session — or at least put it on pause.

Although House leaders continue to express optimism that they can wrangle enough Democratic votes to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the budget, they have yet to conduct a vote. Meanwhile, traditional end-of-session legislation, such as House and Senate appointments to state boards and commissions and technical corrections, is starting to move.

The budget passed the House in late June with three Democrats signing on, at least four short of what would be needed for an override, which requires the vote of three-fifths of those present.

At a Tuesday morning press conference, Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, the chamber’s main budget negotiator, said that given the lack of movement in the budget standoff, it may be time to send members home.

“I believe the speaker (Tim Moore, R-Cleveland) has some expectation that an override will take place,” Berger said. “I am hopeful that’s the case, but if we’ve been here for a while and there is no override, I don’t know that it makes a whole lot of sense for us to keep people here for an indefinite period of time.”

He and Brown blamed Cooper’s intransigence on Medicaid expansion, saying the governor is demanding that the legislature sign on to Medicaid expansion as a precondition to any budget deal.

Berger said he and Brown spent an hour in a conference call Friday morning with Cooper, Moore and House and Senate Democratic leaders.

“It was clear that there was nothing that could be done as far as budget negotiations moving forward unless there was an agreement that Medicaid expansion was either part of the budget or passed in advance of the budget,” Berger said.

Cooper spokesperson Ford Porter said Tuesday afternoon that Cooper has issued no such ultimatum on Medicaid and is ready to work on all aspects of the budget. He said legislative leaders have yet to respond to any part of his counterproposal and have been more focused on winning over Democrats for an override vote than sitting down to negotiate.

“The governor has made no ultimatums about the contents of a final budget, but Republican leaders want to pretend that he has so they can continue to refuse to do the hard work of negotiating and continue trying to bribe legislators to override the veto,” Porter said in a statement to Carolina Pubic Press.

In a budget update sent out just before Brown and Berger’s press conference, Porter said the governor has been willing to negotiate the form an expansion plan would look like. This month, Cooper has taken his message on the road, including stops at rural health centers he says would be helped by expansion.

“Gov. Cooper and Democratic legislators have been clear that Medicaid expansion must be on the table for discussion as part of the budget process,” he said. “While the governor prefers clean expansion, he is willing to discuss concerns of leaders in both chambers to ensure that more North Carolinians can get access to affordable health care.”

Berger on Tuesday acknowledged that the expansion was an important priority to the governor and others but said it was unreasonable to hold up the entire state budget over it.

Budget impasse and small measures

Cooper vetoed the roughly $24 billion spending plan budget on June 28. On July 1, the beginning of a new fiscal year, an automatic continuation budget law took effect that funds most of the state government at current levels. A law passed in 2016 following a protracted budget standoff with then-Gov. Pat McCrory in 2015 provides for this situation but does not provide increases to cover new students in public schools, community colleges and universities. The automatic budget law also freezes wages and raises for state employees.

However, legislators can address some spending priorities with smaller bills. With the standoff now in its third week, bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to fill in some of the gaps in spending levels.

The House passed a stopgap funding bill last week that would fund enrollment increases and a handful of other programs and technical changes. The Senate bill is aimed at making sure the state is authorized to accept and spend federal grant funds for health and human services programs, community block grants and clean drinking water infrastructure.

Berger said he would prefer not to resort to mini-spending bills, but given the standoff, it’s necessary to move some legislation. He said it was likely that the legislature would adjourn soon after stopgap legislation passes and a handful of other priorities are wrapped up, including fixes for the state’s Read to Achieve program and this year’s Farm Act, which has bogged down over a House and Senate disagreement on new hemp regulations.

Votes on those bills and the stopgap spending bill are likely to happen early next week. After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to when the legislature will decide to leave town.

An adjournment bill introduced in the Senate late last week calls for adjournment on Monday, with a return scheduled for Aug. 27. Berger called that bill an “opening bid” and said the House and Senate are still in discussions on the exact timetable for when to adjourn and when to return.

If a budget deal is worked out by the end of August, then the fight with Cooper, a Democrat, would still be shorter than the intraparty disagreement Republicans had with McCrory, who didn’t sign off on a compromise budget until Sept. 21 during one year.

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