Two out-of-state trips — one by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the other by Senate Republican leader Phil Berger — have drawn scrutiny for being kept during the midst of a heated state budget dispute.

Cooper went to New York City on at least June 20 for a still-undisclosed reason as House and Senate Republican budget writers were negotiating a compromise that was passed by both chambers June 27.

As has been the case the past six sessions, Democrats had limited input into the budget-writing process even though Cooper disclosed his priorities in House and Senate bills filed April 1.

Cooper, as expected, vetoed the compromise bill June 28, citing primarily a lack of state Medicaid expansion and not high enough raises for state employees and public school educators.

The veto override vote was placed on the House floor agenda July 8, where it has not been acted upon the past four sessions. It is on the agenda for Monday night’s session.

On Tuesday, Berger, R-Rockingham, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, left to travel to Berlin, Germany, for a legislative-focused conference ending Sunday.

They flew out soon after Cooper released Tuesday an update of his budget priorities.

Berger’s office said the conference “involves leaders of state legislatures from nearly every state in the country.” The conference had agenda items such as trade tariffs, Brexit and nationalist trends.

House GOP leadership needs at least seven Democratic members to override Cooper’s veto of the budget compromise, while Senate GOP leadership needs at least one Democratic senator.

As such, Berger and Senate GOP leadership can’t act on its veto override unless the House override is successful.

Dispute

There have been partisan attempts to hammer Cooper and Berger for being physically absent during the budget dispute even though they have made their presence known through waves of often-critical statements.

For example, Berger is poking at Cooper to divulge details of what Berger has labeled “a big secret.”

“Governor Cooper appears to have abandoned his commitment to openness and transparency, if he ever meant it in the first place,” Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said in a statement distributed by Berger’s office.

The response from Cooper’s office Friday did not directly address Berger’s secrecy allegations.

“The governor has continued with his normal schedule, which has not prevented him from being available to meet in person or by phone with legislators,” according to the response.

“The fact is that Republican leaders have never wanted real negotiations because they have consistently believed they could override a veto and get their way just like they have in the past.

“That’s why they have spent all their time trying to lure Democratic override votes with pork and even an entire cabinet agency instead of real negotiations, but they have not succeeded.”

Forsyth and Guilford counties are under consideration for the relocated headquarters of the state Department of Health and Human Services and potentially 2,300 jobs, state legislators confirmed Wednesday.

A potential move to the Triad appears to depend on another layer of the political hardball surrounding Cooper’s veto of the state budget.

The relocation also could be placed in Cumberland, Granville, Harnett and Wayne counties.

The relocation project, inserted into the state budget, mentions only Granville. It could take up to five years to complete the project.

Berger acknowledged July 8 that GOP leadership has engaged in attempts to lure Democratic override votes through special funding worth a combined tens of millions of dollars for projects in those legislators’ districts.

Berger said in a statement that “if a veto override fails, we’ll agree to start with a blank slate: they’re all off the table.”

“If legislators choose to block priorities for their own districts because of loyalty to the governor, they can explain why to their constituents,” he said.

‘Political posturing’

Cooper’s office said he “has consistently called, talked to and met with Republican leaders to try and find a compromise.”

“After finally being able to see the Republican budget, the governor put forth a detailed compromise proposal that is good for our state, but there has been no response. He remains ready to negotiate.”

The N.C. Democratic Party has launched a digital-ad campaign questioning the importance of Berger and Brown being overseas while they are criticizing Cooper for making what they call ill-timed attempts at trying to resolve the dispute.

“Berger and Brown are welcome to enjoy all the schnitzel and pretzels that Berlin has to offer — but NCDP will make sure that North Carolinians know that Senate GOP leaders are, once again, putting themselves before their constituents,” according to a statement from the party.

Berger’s office said the senators “are in Germany for a long-scheduled conference with leaders of state legislatures from nearly every state in the country.

“Their offices have been open and transparent about their whereabouts and the reason for it.”

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation said “the amount of time spent away isn’t really the point. The complaints about the trips are mostly political posturing.”

“In both cases, the bad optics result from the negotiating partner’s willingness to leave the table for an outside commitment.”

Kokai said that since the pressure to pass a budget and end the 2019 session by July 1 has passed and 90% of state government remains funded at 2018-19 levels, “there’s not as much urgency to get a quick resolution of the impasse.”

“Being gone for a week in mid-July is not the same as being gone for a week in June.

“If a deal were possible, I suspect both Cooper and Berger would be available,” Kokai said.

Kokai said that “had Gov. Cooper engaged with legislative leaders weeks ago and reached a compromise before the new budget year started July 1, no one would have noticed this legislative trip in mid-July.”

“Observers have the facts to help them judge whether Sen. Berger should have kept his commitment to a previously scheduled overseas trip or broken that commitment to continue budget haggling.

“There’s no way to make a reasonable judgment about Cooper’s conduct. We simply don’t know what he was doing instead of negotiating in Raleigh.”

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