Democrats say HB2 repeal, education funding, Medicaid expansion are top priorities

Posted January 25

— House and Senate Democrats used a news conference on the first working day of the legislative session Wednesday to outline their priorities and hopes for the year.

While Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said his members are "very optimistic" they could influence the budget and other policies.

Of the items Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said were top priorities, at least two will probably have some overlap with Republican leaders.

For example, Jackson said giving teacher pay raises was a priority for Democrats. Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, have said they would like to move toward a pay raise as well.

"We are going to be looking at continuing to increase teacher salaries and compensation. We're also looking at making sure that we are compensating state employees properly. Those are two major items," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the chief budget writer in the House.

The latest projection shows the state will have a surplus of about $337 million this year, but Dollar said some of that will be needed for the next round of relief aid for victims of Hurricane Matthew.

"We left a lot on the table in December, and people have remained in limbo in the month since we first addressed this in a special session," agreed Blue, D-Wake.

Republicans have also talked about tax cuts, and Democrats say they would favor tax cuts targeted toward the middle-class.

"We need to give hardworking families a tax cut," Jackson said.

However, Republicans and Democrats likely won't see eye-to-eye on how to cut taxes. Republicans have favored an approach that increases the "zero bracket," the amount of money someone earns on which they pay no income taxes. Jackson championed restoring the state Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable tax credit that gave families money back but which has fallen out of favor with state GOP leaders.

"I think that tax issues will continue to be looked at. There are a number of ideas, different ways that we can reduce that burden on businesses and reduce that burden on working families in North Carolina," Dollar said.

At least one Democratic priority is unlikely to find favor with Republicans: expanding Medicaid. GOP leaders have gone to court to prevent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from expanding the health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Still, Blue said that he believes the lure of increasing the amount of federal dollars flowing to the state, and particularly to rural hospitals, would be too much to resist.

"I think reason will prevail at the end of the day," he said.

Republican leaders said, however, that the uncertainty in Washington, D.C., regarding the future of Medicaid means now is not the time to expand it in Raleigh.

"North Carolina is in a strong financial position. We're going to keep it that way," Dollar said. "We're going to be disciplined, and we're going to continue to focus on economic development and jobs."

Before any of that, however, Democrats said lawmakers should make wiping away House Bill 2, the controversial measure dealing with LGBT rights, the first order of business. Berger said earlier Wednesday he was open to repeal but said that it would require compromise.

Jackson said during his news conference that Democrats had compromised during a December special session, complete with the repeal of a controversial Charlotte city ordinance, but that Republicans had failed to put forward a clean repeal bill.

"If you can't count on people to keep their word around here, it's going to have a negative impact," Jackson said.


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