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Agreement on state budget remains elusive

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Republican legislators and Democrats led by Gov. Roy Cooper tried Tuesday to bring renewed energy to resolving a summer budget stalemate that’s drifted into fall. But their hoped-for outcomes remain different.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger announced his chamber will adjourn for the year by Oct. 31 with or without an enacted budget. He also kept open the idea of passing a spending plan by completing the override of Cooper’s budget bill veto or working out a side deal with Senate Democrats.

“At some point we’ve got to wrap this up,” Berger told reporters after legislators returned to Raleigh after a nearly two-week recess.

Cooper vetoed the GOP-backed two-year state budget in late June largely because it lacks Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of low-income adults and what he considers robust pay raises for teachers. Negotiations on a compromise budget idled as Democrats remained united to uphold any veto.

But House Republicans voted three weeks ago to override the veto in an unexpected vote during a floor session sparsely attended by Democrats, who later accused Republican colleagues of trickery. That put the issue squarely in the Senate’s hands.

Cooper said earlier Tuesday he is confident that all 21 Senate Democrats will stick with him and support the veto. The shift of one Democratic senator or absence of two from the floor would open the door for Republicans to complete the override. Cooper has said Medicaid expansion needs to be part of budget talks but rejects Republican accusations that expansion must be approved before he’ll negotiate.

All Republicans “want to do is try to find a way to override this budget whether it’s … by hook or crook or deception,” Cooper said after the monthly Council of State meeting. “I think people want us to negotiate, and I’m certainly willing to listen to an offer that’s less than what we have proposed. But yet we’ve heard nothing.”

No Senate override vote has been scheduled, and Berger said Senate rules requiring 24 hours’ notice will be followed. Berger said some Senate Democrats want to vote for an override but are afraid of “reprisals from the governor.”

Berger said he’d prefer to pass a replacement state budget that’s been agreed to by enough Democrats so there wouldn’t be another veto showdown with Cooper. Any agreement, Berger said, could include a pledge by himself and GOP House Speaker Tim Moore to hold a session early next year to discuss health care issues.

“I hope Senate Democrats realize they can achieve some of their budget priorities while also getting a special session on health care access,” Berger said.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue and House Minority Leader Darren Jackson tried Tuesday to build on momentum for expansion. They led a public meeting in the Legislative Building attended by 30 Democratic legislators, taking testimony on the importance of offering Medicaid coverage through the 2010 federal health care law.

While Berger remains strongly opposed to expansion, Moore allowed a GOP-style Medicaid bill to resurface two weeks ago in committee, where it passed with bipartisan support.

Tuesday’s hearing speakers included local residents whose family members or workers lack affordable insurance, as well as a professor who measured the benefits of expansion to the North Carolina economy and toward decreasing the number of uninsured.

“The results are truly positive,” George Washington University Professor Leighton Ku said at the hearing.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans planned this week to continue their recent tactic of passing stand-alone measures containing portions of the vetoed budget that have broad bipartisan support.

Cooper said Tuesday he’s unhappy with the “mini-budget” strategy and would prefer negotiations on the entire budget. Still, he’s signed all but one of those measures.

Moore appeared to telegraph support for Berger’s supplemental budget idea with Democrats to end the impasse. In an emailed statement, Moore pointed out Tuesday that improved revenue projections could help pay for more public education spending. Moore also said capital funding for K-12 schools, universities and community colleges is “of the utmost importance before adjourning for any significant period of time.”

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