In spending stalemate, NC Republicans advance ‘mini-budgets’

Published 7:05 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2019

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Frustrated by a two-month budget impasse, Republican legislators on Tuesday advanced narrowed tax and spending legislation that seeks to take away some bargaining chips from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The House and Senate debated and voted on several bills that would increase pay for state employees and law enforcement officers, as well as for local school workers like custodians and other non-instructors.

Another piece of legislation that passed the Senate would give one-time refunds to everyone who owed state income tax last year, with some couples getting $250, thanks to a large revenue surplus.

Cooper sounded irked by the Republican strategy in a news conference later Tuesday, calling it “another trick” by GOP leaders who he says won’t come to the budget negotiating table. But he declined to say whether he’d sign or veto the measures, several of which could be on his desk later this week.

Everything except the tax-rebate bill originates almost exactly from the two-year budget measure Cooper vetoed June 28 because it lacked Medicaid expansion and generous teacher raises. House Republicans, whose majority is no longer veto-proof, have been unable to entice enough Democrats to vote for an override.

That failure — along with Cooper’s emphasis on getting Medicaid expansion approved and the GOP’s opposition to considering the idea now — has led to idled negotiations for several weeks. So legislative leaders last week revealed their plans to essentially approve “mini-budgets” full of pay raises and the tax break, then essentially dare Cooper to veto the bills.

The bills represent popular ideas that are at less risk for vetoes and greater likelihood of an override.

Three of the employee salary bills passed the Senate unanimously Tuesday. But one received tentative House approval on a mostly party-line vote.

“I would not have anticipated (Cooper) being so bull-headed about having Medicaid expansion, knowing that it’s an issue that doesn’t have consensus,” said Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican and a senior budget-writer. “But nevertheless, that’s the pathway that he’s chosen to move forward, and if he chooses to veto pay raises, that’s on the governor.”

The governor has repeatedly rejected Republican arguments that he must secure Medicaid expansion before budget talks can advance. Cooper made a budget compromise offer last month, but Republicans haven’t publicly responded with a counteroffer.

“Instead, we get congressional-style piecemeal budget bills,” Cooper said Tuesday.

He added it’s the Republicans who won’t negotiate unless his efforts to cover hundreds of thousands of additional working people are set aside.

“I’m not going to do that. It has to be part of our discussion,” the governor said, citing meetings he’s had with the uninsured and their struggles. “They hope that Raleigh would listen. We owe it to them to work to close this health care coverage gap.”

The mini-budget bills, which largely cut and paste items from the vetoed two-year budget, would:

• Give 2.5% pay raises annually to rank-and-file state employees and state law enforcement officers for the next two years, with bonuses and incentives for correctional officers working in hard-to-staff prisons or who are moved to higher-security prisons.

• Give 1% raises this year to noncertified local school personnel.

• Provide cost-of-living bonuses in 2019 and 2020 for state retirees equal to 0.5% of their annual pensions.

• Complete final funding and more changes so the state Medicaid system can switch later this year from a fee-for-service program to a managed-care program. Conventional insurers and a physician partnership will soon be treating as many as 1.6 million Medicaid recipients.

The “prepaid health plan” doesn’t address Medicaid expansion through the 2010 health care law, which Cooper is seeking. Republicans have not yet rolled out a bill to address public school teacher raises. Saine said one will come out later.

The GOP budget offered average 3.8% pay raises for teachers over two years. Cooper’s latest offer would provide 8.5% average raises over the same time.

Cooper said he sent letters Tuesday to scores of University of North Carolina system chancellors, community college presidents, public school superintendents and county commissioners urging them to lobby legislators and tell them to negotiate a “responsible budget that works for all North Carolinians.”