GOP-Backed Budget Advances; Stalemate With Democratic Governor Likely

Jun 25, 2019

Updated 9:45 | June 26, 2019

The joint budget plan worked out by Republican legislative leaders is one step closer to going to the governor's desk--and a likely veto.

Both chambers of the GOP-controlled legislature passed the $24 billion spending plan in preliminary votes Wednensday. Final votes are scheduled for Thursday.

Republicans trumpeted the plan's provisions: salary increases for teachers and most state employees, disaster relief funds, and money for new school construction.

The GOP-backed plan provides salary increases for long-time public school teachers in each year of the budget, plus annual $1,000 boosts for newer teachers. Teachers who have worked 16 to 20 years would get a $500 increase the first year, and another $500 the second year. Teachers with 21 to 24 years' experience would get a $1,500 increase in the first year followed by a $500 bump in year two. Teachers with 25 years or more would get a $600 increase in year one, a $500 increase in year two and a $500 bonus in October for each year of the budget.

The proposed budget also includes a 2.5 percent annual increase for most state employees and $15 million to improve recruitment and retention of prison staff.

Still, there are details in the plan the governor likely cannot accept.

It cuts the corporate franchise tax and doesn't expand Medicaid. And Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said it hurts efforts to protect water from emerging contaminants by not funding more regulatory positions.

"This conference report funds five positions and only two of those are actually able to look at the issue, the other three are restricted in what they are able to handle," Harrision said before Wednesday's floor vote, comparing that to the more robust spending Governor Cooper recommended for hiring more staff for the state Department of Environmental Quality.

It would also relocate the state Department of Health and Human Services headquarters from Raleigh to Granville County, affecting thousands of employees, something Republican legislative leaders touted as a way to spur economic development in a rural area.

"From what we've seen, this is a bad budget that has the wrong priorities," said Cooper, in a statement issued after legislative Republicans revealed details of their joint spending plan.

"And it fails to do anything to close the coverage gap that would make health care more accessible for working people," Cooper added in his statement. "North Carolina families deserve a better budget."

The Republicans' budget plan includes a provision calling for a special legislative session down the road to discuss health care access, including Medicaid expansion.

Democrats are not likely to place much faith in the prospects of that dialogue leading anywhere productive. A spokesman for Governor Cooper rhetorically asked in a telephone interview with WUNC why, if the desire for a health care-related discussion is genuine, Republican leaders had not already seized the opportunity to talk.

Cooper and Republican leaders in the legislature have been blaming each other over the past week or so over a series of failed, dead-end attempts to hold budget negotiations. Republicans accuse Cooper of walking away from the table by taking a rigid stance on Medicaid expansion. Cooper says Republicans were never truly committed to good-faith negotiations and refused to engage in his proposed two-track plan for discussions--one track to focus on Medicaid expansion, the other on what Cooper called "the larger budget framework."

Unlike the 2017 budget process, Cooper's first as governor, Republicans no longer hold a veto-proof majority in the state legislature, which means the next two-year spending plan probably won't be signed until long after the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

But House Speaker Tim Moore practically dared Cooper to veto the budget and for Democratic lawmakers to sustain that veto.

Moore pointed out the millions of dollars the budget sets aside for disaster relief to help victims of Hurricane Florence.

"If you vote against this budget you are voting against disaster relief, put whatever spin you want to on it," said Moore, just before Wednesday's vote. That sounds like a refrain GOP candidates are likely to use come 2020.

All but four of the 19 Democrats in the senate Wednesday voted against the joint budget plan. Two Democrats in the house went along with Republicans in supporting the budget. With those numbers, Democrats should be able to sustain a veto by the governor.