News: CJ Exclusives

Legislature’s piecemeal budget plan could put governor on defense

The N.C. Legislative Building in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
The N.C. Legislative Building in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

Republicans are getting impatient. 

Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper insists Medicaid expansion be included in the General Fund budget, and the Republican-dominated General Assembly unequivocally refuses. Lawmakers passed a budget bill and sent to it the governor, who vetoed it June 28.

Republicans plan to pass a budget anyway. One piece at a time.

The hope is that Cooper will have no choice but to approve these most pressing provisions, or risk damaging his reputation with voters. Saying no to pay increases for teachers, state workers, and prison employees even in the name of Medicaid expansion doesn’t pass the eye test. 

“It’s going to be a hard thing for him to say, ‘Look North Carolina, this is just a game by Republicans in the General Assembly,” said Andy Taylor, political science professor at N.C. State University. “We really want Medicaid expansion, so since Medicaid expansion is not part of those stand-alone bills, I’m going to veto them to keep pressure on those guys.”

The General Assembly first attempted provision won unanimous approval from the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee on Wednesday, Aug. 21. The move would raise salaries for state employees in prisons by 2.5% each of the next two years and also grant five additional leave days. Supporters say the bill would help alleviate prison staffing issues.

The measure passed the Senate Rules Committee Thursday. It should reach the full Senate early next week.

Taylor warned that Republicans could risk getting stuck if they take time to deliberate the specifics of each bill, since they don’t necessarily have to copy-paste language from the original legislation.  

Another potential roadblock are General Assembly Democrats. Initial passage of each bill still would require about 10 Democratic votes to signal they have the stomach to override a veto. That’s assuming Republicans vote as a block.

The GOP held together initially. They were joined by four Democrats in the Senate and three in the House. Republicans need seven Democrats from the House and one from the Senate to join the GOP (if all members are present) to override Cooper.

More than 50 days have passed since the state budget deadline, so it’s easy to paint the gridlock through dramatic exchanges among lawmakers and talking about how much it costs to keep the lights on and lawmakers fed. 

But disaster isn’t imminent. In some ways, the state is doing just fine, partly because the 2016 budget plan includes a requirement that if the budget isn’t passed by the end of the fiscal year, the previous year’s budget plan stays in place until a new one becomes law. 

That provision remains state law, which helps lawmakers avoid ultimatums such as Cooper’s, says Joe Coletti, fiscal policy expert at the John Locke Foundation.

“Then your choice is either no spending, or more spending than you want,” Coletti said. 

The General Assembly lost its veto-proof GOP majority in the most recent election, so this is the first time the 2016 provision has applied.

There’s little opportunity for savings as a result of the budget delay. The State Budget Act contains no provisions for prorated spending that is, decreasing spending based on how far past the deadline they’re approved, David McLennan, professor of political science at Meredith College, says in an email. He says the budget includes some appropriations that could restrict how much money is spent per month, which could revert back to the General Fund as unspent capital.

Gridlocks like these usually put the General Assembly at a disadvantage with the governor, Taylor said. In contrast with Cooper, who works year-round for full-time pay, legislators make a part-time salary of $13,951, plus $104 each day they’re in session. They often have outside responsibilities, too.

But the political climate is changing. 

“Republicans in the General Assembly can say, ‘Let’s have a fight or negotiation about Medicaid expansion some other time. Why are you holding the budget hostage?’” Taylor said. “It gives them initiative again in this debate. I think it will be hard to veto stand-alone pay raises.”



  • ProudlyUnaffiliated

    Good. Put Cooper in the spotlight. Maybe the R party is finally getting it, I hope so.