As governor makes offer, efforts to advance NC budget stall

Published 9:32 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2019

By Gary D. Robertson and Amanda Morris

Associated Press

RALEIGH — The drive to enact a new state budget idled Tuesday even as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper made a counteroffer to the two-year plan he’s already vetoed, and Republicans failed again to round up enough votes to override him.

House GOP leaders tried unsuccessfully Monday and Tuesday to woo the several Democrats they need to override Cooper’s veto as long as the chamber’s Republican majority stays united. Democratic seat gains in the 2018 elections mean GOP lawmakers now lack veto-proof control in both the House and Senate, which they had the previous two years.

Although both chambers must pass override votes in order to implement the vetoed budget, the focus is on the House, where six or seven Democratic defections likely are needed. House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County said he is not giving up on that even as he declined to hold an override vote while the floor session was extended for several hours.

“We’re going to keep working at this point,” Moore told reporters. “We’re very close. We’re very close to an override.”

Moore wouldn’t give specifics. Still, in a sign that an override may not happen and any budget compromise could be weeks away, House budget-writers said they would advance a separate measure Wednesday to help fund more government programs in the new fiscal year that began July 1.

There is no threat of a government shutdown, however.

Cooper said he remains confident that enough Democrats would uphold his veto as he disclosed earlier Tuesday a budget offer he sent to Republican leaders. Cooper said his offer is a “serious compromise” that he hopes would ultimately lead to a final deal.

“We have put now a very specific proposal on the table,” Cooper said. “This opens up the matter to serious negotiations and give and take.”

Cooper insisted that Medicaid expansion must be included in part of any agreement, even though Senate Republicans remain strongly opposed to the idea. Cooper said he would prefer not to place additional premium and work requirements on expansion participants — as contained in a House proposal approved by a committee Tuesday, then sent to the floor and never voted on.

But Cooper said he is willing to talk about such mandates.

“Those are items that can be discussed as we continue to negotiate this budget,” Cooper said.

Talks, however, quickly stalled. Negotiations won’t happen, according to Senate leader Phil Berger, unless the governor takes his “Medicaid ultimatum” off the table for budget talks. Berger reiterated Tuesday he’s open to having a special legislative session later this year to address health care access, including expansion.

“We’re willing to have a conversation about health care,” Berger said. “It’s just that for the governor to hold up the entire budget on that one issue strikes me as something that’s just totally inappropriate.”

Separate from Medicaid expansion, Cooper’s offer tells Republicans to eliminate their proposed corporate franchise tax cuts and halt planned enrollment increases in a program that gives taxpayer-funded scholarships to students to attend private or religious schools. Cooper is opposed to vouchers.

He still wants to put a $3.5 billion bond package before voters for public schools and other government buildings. Republicans agreed to build by using existing tax revenues, not by borrowing.

Cooper said he would more than double the average teacher pay raise than what Republicans offered — 8.5% over two years compared to 3.8% in the GOP proposal. Still, Republicans said they passed a great budget and kept trying to portray Cooper as unreasonable on Medicaid expansion.

“Cooper is holding the entire state hostage to coerce one policy preference at the expense of all North Carolinians,” state Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and rules committee chairman.

But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County said Republicans shouldn’t have spent so much time Tuesday trying to lure Democrats and should have considered Cooper’s offer more closely.

“It’s a day we didn’t get anything accomplished,” Jackson said. “We didn’t move the ball forward.”

Medicaid expansion

The Medicaid expansion legislation approved by the House Health Committee requires participants to work and pay up to 2% of their annual household income for coverage. That, along with an estimated $2 billion from hospitals hoping to cut the volume of poor people who can’t pay, would cover the state’s share without costing taxpayers, said state Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican and former hospital executive.

“We have a problem with health care in North Carolina” that includes more than 1 million residents without insurance coverage, struggling rural hospitals and small communities unable to attract doctors as an aging population increases demand, Lambeth said.

The plan assumes about 300,000 would qualify for expanded Medicaid coverage, he said.

North Carolina is one of 14 states that have resisted Medicaid expansion covering roughly 12 million people despite the federal government paying 90% of Medicaid expansion costs under the Affordable Care Act.

That law faced a legal challenge Tuesday in a federal appeals court in New Orleans from Republican-led states arguing that all facets of the law must be voided because Congress dropped tax penalties for people who don’t buy health insurance coverage. Any decision by three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Republican House leaders allowed the legislation, building on proposals first advanced in 2017, to get a committee vote amid a budget fight in which Medicaid expansion looms large. Cooper wants Medicaid expansion without work requirements or premiums and he vetoed the state budget plan adopted by the Legislature because Republicans didn’t include it.

Senate leader Berger said he won’t negotiate with Cooper over the budget unless the governor drops his Medicaid demand.

“We’re willing to have a conversation about health care. It’s just that for the governor to hold up the entire budget on that one issue strikes me as something that’s just totally inappropriate,” Berger said Tuesday.

Berger said the Medicaid expansion bill being considered by the House lacks the votes to pass in the Senate.

Cooper called the Republican decision to begin consideration of Medicaid expansion “a good step forward” but short of his proposal that would expand Medicaid to between 500,000 and 600,000 working North Carolinians.

“Clearly if they’re discussing it, they realize that it’s an important part of this process, but it has to go through two chambers in order to pass,” he told reporters Tuesday.

The expansion proposal advanced Tuesday was opposed by advocacy groups on the left, which argued work and reporting requirements are expensive and complicated, and the right, which said accepting more federal funding for Medicaid would add to the national deficit.

But supporters addressing legislators included the owner of day care centers who said her poorly paid teachers suffer without affordable health care and former Republican gubernatorial candidate George Little, who said North Carolina businesses couldn’t remain competitive without financially stable hospitals.

Cassandra Brooks, who owns two day care centers near Raleigh, said two of her teachers died prematurely from heart ailments that went untreated because they couldn’t afford medical costs, a problem Medicaid expansion could address.

“They died from something so simple that could have been prevented,” she said.