The longer that North Carolina legislators delay votes on the state budget compromise and a form of Medicaid expansion, the more the question becomes which bill legislators are holding hostage.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has accused Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of holding the state budget hostage to Medicaid expansion.

Meanwhile, the latest version of Medicaid expansion legislation, House Bill 655, contains language that will not allow it to take effect until a state budget bill is signed into law by Cooper.

On Wednesday, for the third consecutive session of the N.C. House, no vote was taken on overriding Cooper’s veto of the state budget compromise. The House is scheduled to meet again at 10:30 a.m. today.

And for the second consecutive session, HB655 was not acted upon after being fast-tracked to the House floor Tuesday after one committee meeting.

“In recent days, it has become clear that you do not have the votes to override my veto of the budget,” Cooper said in a letter Wednesday to Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. “I don’t believe you are likely to secure those votes. I would like for us to meet in person or by telephone as early as tomorrow to work toward a compromise budget that requires give-and-take from us all.”

The Senate introduced a bill Wednesday calling for a July 22 adjournment of the current session with an exception of a limited Aug. 27 session for unspecified reasons.

Meanwhile, Berger and Senate majority leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, left Tuesday for a conference in Berlin, Germany, that Berger's office said "involves leaders of state legislatures from nearly every state in the country." The conference, which has items such as trade tariffs, Brexit and nationalist trends, is scheduled to end Sunday.

The desire to debate the state budget veto from both parties led to the hijacking of House Bill 111, a limited stopgap funding bill for fiscal 2019-20.

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group, said Wednesday that there is likely enough support in the House to pass HB655 even though it’s work-requirement element has drawn opposition from some Democratic legislators.

When recess was called Wednesday, 10 amendments to HB655 proposed by Democrats were teed up for consideration.

Two amendments would remove the language tying it to approval of a state budget.

Another amendment would strip out a work requirement for some recipients between ages of 19 and 64, which is key to House Republican support. And another proposed amendment would reduce from 2% to 1% the amount that most participants would be required to contribute from their household income toward an annual premium, billed monthly.

“House Republicans seem amenable to a plan that would bring in the additional federal (Medicaid) money while requiring able-bodied recipients to work for the benefit,” Kokai said. “Senate Republicans are dead set against expansion.

“As for Cooper’s leverage, with no chance of a government shutdown, he doesn’t have much,” Kokai said.

Similar standoff

in Virginia

Developments this week during a brief special session of the Virginia legislature may foreshadow how already rigid stances on the North Carolina budget-Medicaid expansion debate could lead to more delay.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session on at least 30 potential gun-control bills after the May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building in which 12 people were killed, The Washington Post reported.

The session began Tuesday, only to abruptly end after just 90 minutes when Republican leaders in the state House and Senate — which hold narrow majorities — said they would refer all bills to the bipartisan Virginia State Crime Commission for study and recommendation. The leaders chose to reconvene the session Nov. 18, after the general election for all 140 legislative seats.

The N.C. Senate’s GOP leadership has included in the budget compromise a willingness to support a special session on health care and Medicaid issues that’s contingent on an override of Cooper’s veto.

Given Berger and other Senate GOP leaders’ opposition to Medicaid expansion, there is no guarantee HB655 or any expansion legislation would be heard in the Senate. There’s also no guarantee the Senate would vote on HB655 if it were to pass the House, which some analysts say makes Berger’s pledge hollow.

The governor has the constitutional authority to call the N.C. General Assembly into a special session, as does the lieutenant governor and House speaker on a joint basis, as happed with the House Bill 2 transgender restroom controversy.

“But he is not the legislators’ boss,” Kokai said. “He can’t force them to take any action on legislation. He can’t force them to spend time in Raleigh if they would rather be home.”

Kokai said Senate Republicans likely would use a special session “to promote ideas that would work better to boost health-care access and reduce costs: certificate-of-need reform, reduced restrictions on health practitioners’ scope of practice, and other market-oriented ideas that focus on the supply side of health care.”

However, current Senate legislative efforts on those issues have drawn resistance in the House.

Budget swapping

Berger acknowledged Monday 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 the targeted 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.

John Dinan, a political-science professor at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on state legislatures, said he doesn’t think that “anyone is under any illusions about whether the General Assembly will actually pass Medicaid expansion this year, whether in traditional form or in the slightly modified form contained in the House bill.”

“If this effort (with HB655) to sway enough wavering House Democrats doesn’t work, then the question is whether the governor’s counterbudget proposal might serve as a basis for bargaining with the legislature over teacher salary and school construction funding,” Dinan said.

“Medicaid expansion is a nonstarter in the Senate, and freezing the opportunity scholarship funds is a nonstarter in both houses.

“But there is room for negotiating over the size of the teacher salary raises and the amount and structure of school-construction spending.”

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rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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