GOP’s final budget gets initial approval from legislature

Published 12:02 am Thursday, June 27, 2019

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Legislators gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a final budget agreement hashed out between Republican leaders that failed to include the top-tier negotiating appeals from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The House and Senate voted separately Wednesday to approve a two-year spending plan. The tallies were largely along party lines, with three Democrats in each chamber siding with the Republican majority.

Still, those defections wouldn’t be enough to override Cooper’s likely veto after he receives the budget bill following final legislative votes set for today. A veto would be upheld if House Democrats can retain the identical level of support against the budget in override votes. That would result in a stalemate between the GOP-controlled legislature and Cooper that could leave the state without a new budget well after the new fiscal year starts Monday.

The votes cap a couple of weeks of back and forth between Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger in negotiations that generated little or no compromise. Cooper wants Medicaid expansion and insisted it be included in any talks.

The governor also opposed the corporate tax breaks Republicans wanted and sought across-the-board pay raises for teachers. The Republican budget retained those tax cuts and offers targeted increases for veteran teachers.

During the debate, key Democrats predicted more negotiations would be ahead this summer, but with Cooper and legislators having a larger say.

“This report excludes Gov. Cooper’s input from the budget process in a major way,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said during a Senate debate that lasted only 30 minutes. “We recommit to real compromise that will produce a budget that works for everyone.”

Republicans said Cooper failed to initiate real dialogue on the budget by refusing to provide counteroffers when requested. On Medicaid expansion, which Berger strongly opposes, the GOP’s consensus budget does include a provision encouraging Cooper to convene a special session to address health care access, including expansion.

“Compromise 101 is you don’t get your way totally,” said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, before the budget was approved 33-15. “Compromise 101 means that you move some from your position to a position of other folks.”

The House tentatively approved the measure 66-51. Moore took a more impassioned stance near the end of the 2½-hour House debate, pledging a thorough debate and action on health care in a special session this fall if the GOP budget passed. Otherwise, he said, “we’d look ridiculous.”

Just last week, Moore told reporters there would be no vote on Medicaid expansion. But Wednesday, Moore had positive things to say about a proposal by some Republicans that is expansion in everything but name. The “NC Health Care for Working Families” proposal would set work requirements and premium payments for recipients.

Otherwise, GOP leaders highlighted provisions in the budget that would accumulate $4.4 billion for school construction and renovations over 10 years. The construction would be paid for with existing and future revenues, not by a bond package.

“This is truly an historic investment in our future,” GOP Rep. Dean Arp of Union County said. Cooper wants to issue debate through a bond proposal for school and infrastructure.

Over $700 million in the budget would be parked in the state’s reserve fund by mid-2021, restoring its levels close to those before Hurricane Florence last year. Another $112 million also would be allocated to disaster needs after Florence, Hurricane Matthew and other recent storms. Berger’s office said $91 million would be allocated for school safety measures over two years, including permanent funds for hiring school police officers and mental health workers.

Democrats complained the measure failed to adequately fund operating the public schools and fell well short of the Cooper’s administration request to fund 37 environmental department positions to address emerging contaminants in water sources. The budget only funded five positions, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.

“This budget does not work for our schools. It does not work for our health,” said Rep. Wesley Harris, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

The GOP measure is sprinkled throughout with funds for local projects and nonprofit groups, items that likely weighed on Democrats pondering whether to vote for the plan.