NC lawmakers take a break, with a budget and bills still unfinished
Republican leaders at the North Carolina General Assembly said this week that they'll take a break until Aug. 7. That means no votes on bills, no overrides of vetoes by Gov. Roy Cooper, and no vote on a $30 billion state budget for the fiscal year that began three weeks ago. To find out what's going on in Raleigh, WFAE's David Boraks talked with Colin Campbell, the Capitol bureau chief at WUNC.
BORAKS: So is this just summer vacation or are there things going on behind the scenes that have put the legislature on hiatus here?
CAMPBELL: Probably a mix of both. I mean, with the budget stalemate, the negotiations are still going on, the top leaders are actually in the legislative building this week, holding talks about their remaining disagreements on the state budget, but the rank-and-file lawmakers have all gone home. And some of the reason for not holding other votes at this time is there's simply a lot of folks who are on vacation every week, somebody's either got a medical leave, or they've got a pre-planned vacation, because of course, the legislature typically tries to wrap up by June. So a lot of people build out their calendars and their summer vacation plans in the hopes that they won't be doing any legislation in July. And this year, of course, there's still a need to do more.
BORAKS: Well, lots of follow up on there. What work does the legislature still have to do?
CAMPBELL: So the budget is sort of the big item that's obviously, you know, supposed to be done by the beginning of the fiscal year. We're now about three weeks into the fiscal year and it hasn't happened yet. There are veto overrides on five different bills that the governor has vetoed in the last few weeks. Some pretty controversial stuff on transgender issues, on public education that are in there, they probably have the votes to do the override. But they do have to get everybody in the room in order to have those votes. So they're holding off on that until August.
There's some remaining issues around election laws, some changes to how we vote coming into the 2024 election that are still pending, as well as some changes to the governor's appointment powers to lots of big-ticket items still on their agenda before the long session for this year is officially more or less done.
BORAKS: So on those veto overrides, is there the possibility that any of these bills will actually stay vetoed if this drags on? Or do you expect them to go through?
CAMPBELL: I expect most of those will go through. Like I say, it's really just a challenge for Republicans to try to get their schedules on the same page. To get a successful veto override in the House and Senate, they have to have all members of the Republican caucus on the floor and voting. They've got them on the calendar for the week of Aug. 7. But it could postpone it further if they don't have the votes they need. But I think they do have sort of uniform support for these pieces of legislation.
BORAKS: So on the budget, first of all, how unusual is it for North Carolina to be without a budget at the start of the fiscal year? What's the history?
CAMPBELL: It's not terribly unusual. I mean, there's certainly been years where they've actually done it on time. But even just two years ago, it took until November before the governor signed a budget. Part of that was they had to negotiate with the governor. And that took several months. But there was … even at this point last year the House hadn't even passed its initial budget. So certainly blowing that July 1 deadline is something they do quite often.
BORAKS: This isn't a fight between Democrats and Republicans this time, right? This is Republicans in the two houses, or is it the leadership?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, for some for the last, I guess four years now, the Republicans didn't have a supermajority so they were sort of forced to work with the governor or try to at least get a budget through with the governor's veto. Now, even if the governor does veto it, they likely have the votes they need to pass it. So Democrats really aren't involved at all in negotiations. It's really sort of the top-level leaders from both chambers, all Republicans, debating the size of tax cuts, how much money to put into savings, what other major projects to fund. I'm hearing that they have agreed on the size of raises for state employees. But they've declined to say exactly what those raises are until they get the rest of this sorted out.
BORAKS: So can you just, clearly again for me, tick off what are the major issues that remain as far as the budget goes, as far as you can tell?
CAMPBELL: So the biggest include income tax cuts and tax cuts for businesses, the Senate wants to be more aggressive in those, cut those more steeply, cut them sooner than the House wants to do. The House wants to take a more cautious approach given the possibility of an economic recession. There are concerns about how much money do you put into savings. There are a variety of big spending projects, including over a billion dollars the Senate wants to put towards a group called NC Innovation that does research and development work. The House wanted a much smaller amount than that. So there's, those are sort of the main issues.
BORAKS: So caught in the middle of this fight over the budget is the expansion of Medicaid. The governor has said this would extend Medicaid coverage to an additional 600,000 North Carolinians. Remind us why is this in the budget? And is there any chance of that changing?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, so the Medicaid bill was passed several months back, but it was contingent on the budget passing this year. Republicans made the argument that because there's a lot of money involved in Medicaid expansion, that they need to tie it to the budget and can't get it done until the full budget is enacted. So there's a big concern about people who were coming off the Medicaid rolls as a result of the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency who would be qualified to stay on Medicaid under expansion but may be kicked off for a period of time while we're waiting. The governor also notes that there's an urgency with doing Medicaid expansion. In terms of getting some of the federal signing bonus money. He argues we're losing money with every month we delay. So there's a lot of pressure from the governor and Democrats to split that off to pass a bill that says, 'hey, we can start Medicaid expansion right now, regardless of the budget.' Republicans are still opposed to doing that change.
BORAKS: Well, let's talk about the politics here. Gov. Cooper and other Democrats have been holding press conferences and making statements about this, as you mentioned. What are they saying? And is this a political opportunity for them? And what does it mean for Republicans?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, so I think Democrats are really pushing hard, we get press releases nearly every day from the governor's office calling on them to come back from vacation and get a budget done. They say that, you know, the state employees are hurting, there's a big vacancy rate in state government, and that the longer that those raises are still uncertain more people are going to leave state government jobs because they don't know how much they're going to be making in a few months. Certainly, there's an argument to be made from the Democrats sort of to point at Republican dysfunction to say, look, this party has all the power in the legislature, and they still can't get the basic governing done on time. So I think that'll become an argument you'll hear more of going into next year's elections.