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At Session Start, NC Legislators Pitch Consensus With Cooper

In this May 1, 2018, file photo, from left, Senate leader Phil Berger, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore pause prior to a news conference in Raleigh, N.C.
Gerry Broome

The North Carolina General Assembly session begins in earnest Wednesday with Republican majorities still in place after the November election. And reelected Gov. Roy Cooper still has enough Democratic allies there to uphold his vetoes when they're united.

When this same dynamic began in 2019, House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger and Cooper dug in their heels, leading to a state budget stalemate that never got fully resolved. And while Cooper blocked the GOP's favored legislation on hot-button issues, much of his agenda got sidelined as well.

Heading into this next two-year session, all three politicians don't want to go through that again.

In separate interviews with The Associated Press, they've expressed a commitment to seeking consensus on big items, in particular those related to COVID-19, including aid to struggling businesses and K-12 students falling behind while learning from home.

“The voters chose divided government. That’s where we are. And so we will have to govern accordingly,” Moore said. “There’s no use in having a budget impasse where we don’t get anything else done because of that. Because there’s so many things so many good ways we can spend the money and so many needs out there.”

Moore said overwhelming bipartisan support in 2020 for bills that meted out $3.6 billion in coronavirus funds from the federal government signals more bipartisanship early this year as lawmakers distribute another tranche of COVID-19 funds. And locating money for expanded rural broadband coverage also should be well received.

Berger and Cooper have said they've talked many times since the election about working to find areas of agreement. Cooper said he anticipates a new way to approach the state budget that relies on improved communications. “I think we all want to be able to get to a budget that we can agree on,” Cooper told the AP last month.

During the legislature's one-day meeting Jan. 13 to elected leaders, Berger said he would accept Cooper's commitment to “expand common ground where it may exist.” But he also told Senate colleagues that Republicans would not veer away from conservative fiscal policies to reach it.

“While the cause of our present circumstance may be different, our policy prescriptions are largely unchanged,” Berger said in his acceptance speech to a sixth term as Senate leader.

One key test will be whether Cooper, an aggressive booster of expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of adults, can set aside this policy preference if it will result in a budget he can otherwise sign.

The absence of Medicaid expansion was the budget's major sticking point in 2019. Berger and Moore said last week they remain skeptical of full-blown expansion.

Republicans, meanwhile, will have to decide whether to advance again other legislation Cooper vetoed in 2019, such as those addressing late-term abortions and forcing sheriffs to assist federal immigration agents. New House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat, said it would be the wrong time to do so.

“People are hurting and we’re coming through a really tumultuous time as a country, and I just think that to get into divisive issues right now for either (party) would just be irresponsible,” Reives said. Republicans also are floating ideas to rein in a governor's emergency powers during a pandemic and to address permanently a legal fight last fall over absentee ballots.

The Republican calculus to override Cooper’s vetoes is now improved in the House, where only at least three Democrats are needed to overcome a veto, instead of seven. But two Democratic senators now would have to jump ship, instead of one. And Senate Democrats stuck together the past two years.

COVID-19 already has created challenges for lawmakers to pass a biennial budget before July 1. Staff economists at the legislature and Cooper’s budget office have not issued a revenue forecast since last May because of uncertainty associated with the economy and tax revenues.

Moore and Berger agreed it's clear the situation isn't as dire as the last projection of a $4.2 billion decline in government revenues by mid-2021 compared to what was previously anticipated. For the first half of the fiscal year, revenues were actually $1.7 billion above what were collected during the first six months of the previous fiscal year, according to the state controller.

Strained tax collections actually could improve chances for a statewide bond referendum for schools and other infrastructure projects backed by Moore and Cooper. Berger has favored paying for projects with cash but said last week he'd be open to debt if revenues aren't robust.

This year's work period is expected to last into June, after which lawmakers will likely return in late summer or early fall for another divisive issue: redrawing legislative and congressional maps based on 2020 census numbers.

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