The N.C. General Assembly went into adjournment Thursday with most pressing budget funding issues addressed during the 10-month long session.
However, several high-profile and controversial loose ends remained without resolution as the budget stalemate reached Day 128 today.
Given that the projected state budget for 2019-20 has not been signed into law, and no Medicaid expansion legislation advanced, some legislative analysts and observers have questioned why the four-month, often high-political theater was necessary.
Especially when the mostly successful mini-budget funding strategy could have been employed by Republican legislative leaders shortly after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the GOP budget compromise bill on June 28.
Sen. Phil Berger released a statement Thursday saying that through the mini-budget process, the legislature “passed funding that totals 98.5% of the original $24 billion (budget) it passed in June.”
“Of course, it didn’t have to be this way,” Rob Schofield, a policy analyst with left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said in a blog post.
“Throughout the summer, Republican leaders have refused to pursue the result that the state’s electorate clearly voted for last year when it ended several years of GOP legislative supermajorities — namely, a comprehensive compromise between the legislature and the governor.
“Instead, (Senate leader Phil) Berger and House speaker Tim Moore have stubbornly resisted genuine, give-and-take negotiations in hopes of ramming through one last, hard-right state budget before a widely forecast Democratic electoral wave approaches in 2020,” Schofield said. “The strategy appears to be to get as much as possible done while the proverbial ‘getting is good.’”
Republicans hold a 29-21 majority in the Senate, which means they need at least one Senate Democrat to support overriding Cooper’s vetoes of House Bill 966 (budget) and House Bill 555 (Medicaid managed care startup funding).
House Republican leaders waited 76 days to conduct their veto override votes in controversial manner Sept. 11. Most Democratic members were not on the floor because they said they had been told by Republican House leadership that no votes would be taken during the first session that day.
By comparison, the HB966 and HB555 override votes were on the Senate floor agenda only four days before adjournment.
For the six other vetoed bills, the House would need the votes of at least seven House Democrats.
Legislative experts estimate it costs $42,000 a day for the General Assembly to operate a session. As of the adjournment, it will have cost $3.11 million in taxpayer money for the 74 floor sessions held after June 28.
Although the General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene Nov. 13 to take up expected redistricting legislation, veto override votes currently can’t occur until Jan. 14 at the earliest.
Cooper has signed at least 138 bills into law since his budget veto, including some significant non-budget legislation.
That includes: House Bill 198 on human trafficking; House Bill 325 on opioid response funding; House Bill 404 on UNC System capital projects; House Bill 474 on death by distribution opioids legislation; Senate Bill 290 on ABC regulatory reforms; and Senate Bill 412 and companion House Bill 1001 on Raise the Age legal modifications on youth criminal laws.
“Some business was handled that may not have been handled if the legislature had adjourned by July 1,” said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and a national expert on state legislatures.
“But, much of the legislation passed since the start of July could likely have been handled next spring.”
Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said stalemates have been “standard practice for the majority.”
“Whether Democrats or Republicans and whether it’s North Carolina or any other state, the majority party holds off on a vote until they have enough votes to win.
“The governor has chosen to stop the bipartisan budget from moving forward for his own political issues” that include Medicaid expansion, higher public school teacher pay raises than in the GOP budget, and other educational and infrastructure issues.
“The budget veto has placed many hardships on agencies and organizations who were expecting funding that was promised,” Krawiec said. “The governor has chosen to put every program at risk and to hold the budget hostage to his political desires.
“We have tried to pass mini budgets to deal with some important issues, but there are many left on the table.”
Besides the budget, Krawiec cited the holding up of $218 million in Medicaid managed care startup funding.
Although state health officials currently say a Feb. 1 launch date is feasible, lawmakers from both parties are urging a delay until July 1, if not longer.
Krawiec says Cooper’s veto of the budget and the Medicaid managed-care mini budget “jeopardizes the healthcare system promised to our most vulnerable citizens.”
Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, said he believes the 21 Senate Democrats’ commitment to upholding Cooper’s budget veto led Senate GOP leadership to turn to a temporary adjournment rather than continue the long session into the holidays.
“Because the budget process is still in play, and discussions about the budget are just beginning, I will remain quiet at this time,” Lowe said when asked about when Senate Republicans will finally bring up the budget veto override vote.
After House Republican leadership called their controversial veto override votes on the state budget and Medicaid managed care startup funding, Moore tried to put some salve on the bruised Democrat feelings by pledging to call for a vote of House Bill 655, a Medicaid expansion bill sponsored by Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth.
The bill was returned to the House Health committee on Sept. 11, and a meeting was held Sept. 18 in which 12 amendments were addressed and four approved before recommending the bill to the Rules and Operations committee.
Five amendments were withdrawn after Lambeth said he would discuss the potential legislation with their sponsors.
House Rules has not taken up the bill.
Moore told legislative online media outlet The Insider on Thursday that “the day (Lambeth) wants to move the bill, he has the green light to do so. ... He really wants it to be more of a consensus bill” in both chambers.
HB655 has a work or community volunteer requirement of up to 80 hours per month for some recipients, as well as a monthly Medicaid coverage premium based on 2% household income.
Although House Democrats have opposed the two controversial requirements, including failing to have them removed from the bill, they appear willing to accept them as a means for advancing a form of Medicaid expansion to between 450,000 and 650,000 North Carolinians.
The work requirements have been held up by federal judges in at least Arkansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire. CMS is appealing the rulings in Arkansas and Kentucky.
In the past two weeks, Arizona and Indiana have chosen to back off — at least temporarily — implementing the work requirement provisions that CMS has approved for them.
Berger and other Senate GOP leaders have expressed stiff opposition to any Medicaid expansion legislation, primarily citing to-date unfounded concerns that the federal government may not maintain its 90% match of expansion administrative costs.
Berger spokesman Bill D’Elia said there are reasons to believe the federal government may not sustain its 90% match even though it has for 36 states to date.
Lambeth said that while he continues to work on HB655, “the most tragic impact of no budget is the delay in Medicaid transformation that was on schedule and could easily have been rolled out if the budget was approved.”
Medicaid currently serves 2.2 million North Carolinians.
Of those, 1.6 million are scheduled to be enrolled in the new managed-care system under a federal waiver approved in October 2018. About 70,000 recipients have been enrolled, state health officials said Oct. 23.
“I have indicated to (the health) secretary that a July 1 phased-in approach was much more realistic (than Feb. 1),” Lambeth said.
“I have encouraged her as recently as this week to seriously consider a more realistic plan. She has no budget and a number of issues in the transformation bill that were vetoed that are necessary.”
That said, Lambeth acknowledged further delay in rolling out the managed care initiative “will cost taxpayers in N.C. millions of dollars and will delay improved quality of health care to the Medicaid participants.”
Cooper has flexed his veto power during the 2019 session by applying the strategy nine times to date.
An override attempt on Senate Bill 359, titled “Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” received a 67-53 vote in June — three votes shy of overcoming the veto despite two Democrat supporters.
The January session is where other Cooper vetoes could be taken up, in particular House Bill 370 — a Republican-sponsored bill that would force North Carolina’s 100 sheriffs to comply with detainers issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on jail inmates who are suspected of being in the country illegally.
ICE detainers can keep people in jail for longer than they would normally would be, based on their charges.
The House voted 62-53 in favor of the bill on Aug. 20, while the Senate voted 25-18 on June 24. HB370 is sitting in the House Rules and Operations committee.
“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina,” Cooper, who previously was the N.C. attorney general, said in an Aug. 20 statement addressing his veto.
“This bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating sheriffs to do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties,” Cooper said.