Lawmakers return with end of session in sight

Gov. Roy Cooper is pictured in a file photos from Wednesday, February 14, 2018 in Raleigh. On Friday, Dec. 15, 2018, Cooper vetoed the Voter ID bill.

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly could soon be done wrestling with legislation this year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll pin down a broad budget law or path forward on Medicaid expansion.

Lawmakers returned Monday following a roughly 10-day break. Senate leader Phil Berger said his chamber will be done with regular business by Oct. 31. House Speaker Tim Moore hasn’t committed publicly to that date, but it’s clear the end is near.

This year’s session began nine months ago and by tradition was supposed to finish in July.

Now a budget stalemate between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper lasted all summer and into fall. GOP lawmakers lack veto-proof majorities but did not acquiesce to Cooper’s budget demands so the state budget has yet to be enacted in full. Republicans still have decisions on several other bills or vetoes unrelated to the budget.

Cooper vetoed the legislature’s two-year state budget in June because it lacked Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of additional able-bodied adults. He also disliked lower business tax rates and wanted additional teacher raises beyond the increases agreed to by the legislature.

Republicans have been unwilling to concede, blaming Cooper for derailing true negotiations by insisting on expansion. Cooper has said it needs to be on the table but rejects that he’s unwilling to compromise.

House Republicans managed to approve a veto override during an unexpected vote last month when most of the House Democrats were not in the chamber. Senate Republicans only need one Democrat to join them to complete the override, but Democrats there say they’re united.

Berger and Moore sound willing to adjourn without a budget because Republicans have passed several narrow spending bills mimicking popular sections of the two-year budget. Cooper has signed all but one of those bills into law, whittling down his negotiating leverage to pass a broader budget to his liking.

Berger said more consensus “mini-budgets” are possible, with top priorities including pay raises for teachers and higher-education system workers. “Once you get beyond that, I don’t know that there’s anything that there is … a must-do,” he said. A revenue surplus could sweeten those salary increases.

Medicaid expansion is a complicated proposition among Republicans.

Senators led by Berger oppose the idea largely on fiscal grounds, even as proposals by both parties would require hospitals to pay the state’s 10% match to federal funds. Rural hospitals and residents — many in Republican-leaning areas — could benefit the most from the revenue guaranteed by expansion.

Enough House Republicans support expansion that Moore allowed them to run a measure last month that includes premiums and work mandates for recipients. But it has not reached the floor.

Cooper has dismissed Berger and Moore’s pitch of allowing a special session soon to discuss health care access, including expansion.

Republicans have been unable to override any of Cooper’s other vetoes this year after Democrats gained seats in 2018.

Among the seven nonbudget bills vetoed, GOP leaders are most keen on overriding the one to require county sheriffs to recognize requests by U.S. immigration agents to hold jail inmates believed to be in the country illegally. An unsuccessful override on the immigration bill, however, may turn out to be a winning campaign issue next year for Republicans.

Another veto remains intact on a bill laying out funds to run the existing Medicaid program for the next two years as it shifts to managed-care treatment. The managed-care shift likely can’t begin on time without it.

House and Senate members have approved competing versions of bills on more than a dozen topics, and they’d like to approve consensus compromises on several of them before going home. But there are no promises all will be welcomed by Cooper or outside groups.

Cooper, through his state environmental secretary, has indicated he’s likely to veto a measure that would give Duke Energy and other utilities the option to seek multiyear electric rates from state regulators.

And whatever measure agreed to on a regulatory framework to expand industrial hemp farming in North Carolina could end up in court if or when the bill directs that smokable hemp be banned from use in the state.

Lawmakers also have yet to reach agreement on bills tightening mail-in absentee balloting laws, giving child abuse victims more time to sue their assailants and offering loans to struggling rural hospitals.