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Cooper’s budget proposal includes Medicaid expansion, bonds

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper recommended to legislators on Wednesday how to spend the state’s remaining COVID-19 federal relief dollars, mainly for public health, K-12 schools and local governments.

But the Democrat also wants to adjust now the annual state government spending plan that began July 1. He’s asking to spend $559 million more in state dollars for things such as disaster relief and education for at-risk students. He also wants teacher bonuses well beyond what Republican lawmakers approved in June.

Policy and other spending prescriptions favored for years by Cooper — Medicaid expansion and over $5 billion in proposed new debt for capital projects and infrastructure among them — also were attached to the budget plan. They are likely to be idled by GOP leaders controlling the legislature.

The General Assembly returns Sept. 2 and is only expected to meet for two or three days. And Senate Republicans have already warned against spending unexpected tax collections now — like Cooper is doing — when there’s so much uncertainty about the state’s economy due to the coronavirus.

Cooper and his budget director sounded comfortable about spending additional state funds for what the governor considers critical needs.

“If they need to stay a few more days to get this done, we want to do it,” Cooper told reporters at a briefing. “I think the people of North Carolina need this.”

Cooper rejected the idea that his budget proposal, coming two months before his reelection bid and elections for all 170 legislators, was merely aspirational. He became animated over the unwillingness of North Carolina Republicans to provide Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of additional residents when people are losing their insurance due to unemployment. A 2019 budget stalemate between lawmakers and Cooper centered largely over an impasse on expansion. North Carolina is one of 12 states that haven’t approved expansion.

“Yeah, we were having disputes over Medicaid expansion, but then a pandemic happened and now a lot of people are hurting,” Cooper said. “Now is the time do it.”

The legislature agreed in June to give the usual experienced-based pay raises to teachers in addition to one-time $350 bonuses. Cooper’s plan would give additional $2,000 bonuses to teachers and principals, $1,000 to noninstructional school staff including janitors and office workers and $1,500 to University of North Carolina and community college system employees.

Senate Republicans accused Cooper on Wednesday of recklessly trying to spend $457 million in revenue that the state unexpectedly collected during the previous fiscal year. That money could evaporate this year given the economic uncertainty, one senator warned.

“When my small business’ accountant tells me some money on the balance sheet might disappear next month, I don’t run out and spend it,” Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican, said in a news release. “Gov. Cooper’s ‘spend now, pray later’ proposal could very well result in teacher layoffs next year.”

Cooper also would take $85 million from the program that gives taxpayer-funded scholarships to students to attend K-12 private schools. Cooper ultimately wants to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which Republicans hail as one of their most important education achievements.

Cooper and Republicans in the legislature, particularly the Senate, do seem willing to raise maximum unemployment weekly benefits, which are currently at $350 per week. Cooper wants the benefit to go up to $500 a week. Senate Republicans proposed $400 a week in the spring.

Separately, Cooper unveiled how he’d like to spend $978 million in coronavirus relief money left over from the $3.5 billion that Congress sent to North Carolina in the spring. Cooper’s proposal would re-purpose $400 million that legislators had already tried to distribute earlier this year.

Cooper’s office said his COVID-19 relief proposal would spend $175 million for public health services, of which $25 million would go to testing and tracing.

He wants $49 million to create a state stockpile of personal protective equipment; $200 million for local governments; and $46 million to help small businesses and Black- and women-owned businesses struggling during the pandemic. K-12 schools would receive $132 million and UNC system schools $75 million in his relief package.

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