RALEIGH — North Carolina House and Senate members returned on Jan. 30 to begin filing bills amidst a changed partisan landscape. Despite Republican majorities in both chambers, Democrats have greatly increased their share of seats, breaking GOP supermajorities, and also have an ally in the governor’s mansion with a newly-effective veto.
As the first week of business came to a close, 13 bills had been filed in the House and 17 in the Senate. It was Democrats who made more aggressive moves to pursue their policy aims during this first week, filing major bills, including one that would expand Medicaid and another that would repeal a 2015 monuments law that prevents cities and universities from moving statues like Silent Sam on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus without state approval.
The Medicaid expansion, which was filed as H.B. 5 in the House and S.B. 3 in the Senate, would widen the eligibility for Medicaid to those aged 19 to 65 who are at 133 percent of the federal poverty level as long as they are not also eligible for certain other Medicaid or Medicare benefits.
Democrats from both chambers gathered for a press conference announcing this bill as a top priority for them during the 2019-20 session.
“Now is the time to expand Medicaid in North Carolina and to close the coverage gap,” said Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) during the press conference. “This is the most important bill we can pass on behalf of our constituents this session.”
Republicans in some other states have agreed to expand Medicaid because there is a federal grant that helps fund it, but North Carolina Republicans argue it would make the large state-managed system more difficult to predict, fund and run. In addition, the absence of a work requirement leaves room for abuse, according to many conservative policy analysts.
“As Sen. (Phil) Berger has said before, he has a hard time reconciling the idea of Medicaid expansion with the fiscal realities of adopting a budget,” Bill D’Elia, a spokesperson for the Senate leader, told North State Journal.
The Democrats other major proposal, to eliminate the 2015 monuments law, was introduced in the House as H.B. 10 and quickly accumulated 18 co-sponsors, all Democrats. The bill is a straight-forward repeal of the 2015 law and purports to return the state to the previous status quo on the issue, when local authorities did not need to gain approval from the N.C. Historical Commission to move monuments.
When asked on the floor about the need to revisit this law, Berger (R-Rockingham) said he did not believe any changes were necessary at this time, signaling likely opposition to H.B. 10 by Republicans.
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), the lead primary sponsor of the bill, told North State Journal she believes that in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Va., where clashes over a Confederate monument lead to violence and even one death, that this bill likely would not have been passed, and now that there’s tension around the issue, the law should be revisited.
“I know a lot of North Carolinians see these monuments as reflecting heritage or historical value, and I’m not demonizing them, but we also have to realize that to many others in our state, these monuments represent something deeply offensive, something we need to move beyond,” she told NSJ. “If local governments decide it’s best to remove them, there shouldn’t be obstacles put in their way.”
Harrison says she hopes her bill can gain some bipartisan support, but after the comments from Republican leaders she is “not optimistic” it can be passed without a fight.
The main duty of the legislature during a long session, which occurs on odd-numbered years, is to write a biennial budget. After this process is done, as well as any other legislation they wish to address, both chambers will agree to adjourn until the next summer for the “short session.”
Legislators typically aim to finish up business by early July before the Independence Day holiday, but they often miss this goal and may even continue session into the fall.