High hopes and dashed plans: GOP policy flops prompt calls for further action

Gridlock between Republicans in the House and Senate prompted the unraveling of plans to expand Medicaid and legalize medical marijuana.

Posted Updated

Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers had high hopes coming into the short session in May. Legislative leaders wanted to extend health care to more low-income residents, let people with cancer smoke prescribed pot, and reap millions by enabling people to use their phones to bet on their favorite sports teams.

But when the session adjourned Friday, the Republican-backed policy efforts had fallen apart.

Lawmakers didn’t expand Medicaid. They didn’t legalize medical marijuana. They didn’t approve online sports betting. The defeats were not the result of partisanship, but of intraparty gridlock among Republicans.

Inaction sat largely at the hands of a handful of GOP leaders, particularly in the House, where chamber leader Tim Moore favored less ambitious versions of the bills or disagreed with the Senate’s approach altogether. The policy unravelings came despite overwhelming support among residents for all three proposals.

Lawmakers still have the option to return later in the year, but key members signaled little appetite to go back to the negotiating table to address the unresolved issues.

“These are just tough issues to deal with, particularly when we’re in a budget situation where we’re going to be here only like six weeks and then be done,” Moore said.

The Republican-controlled legislature’s proposed budget didn’t provide sweeping new tax cuts some in the party had sought, nor did it include $200 gas tax rebates Democrats wanted to help offset rising fuel costs for residents. Proposed raises for teachers and state workers also fell well short of the rate of inflation.
Even top priorities for Republicans weren’t sent to the governor, including a bill to bar instruction materials for children from kindergarten through third grade related to sexual orientation or gender identity.

“My position has been if there’s going to be a lot of sound and fury about a bill that has no chance of becoming law like that, why don’t we just wait until next year?” Moore said.

It’s not unusual for major legislative priorities to be on the chopping block when lawmakers leave Raleigh, but this year’s session appeared particularly contentious between Moore and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger.

“It’s entirely possible if we had more runway, we might have gotten some other things done, but we came into the short session with the intent of being finished by July 1,” Berger said.

A Looney Tunes relationship

Pat Ryan, Berger’s former deputy chief of staff, attributed the inaction on Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and online sports betting to the time crunch and complexities of the issues.

“Yes, there’s always tension between the House and the Senate, but I don’t think it’s necessarily different this time around,” said Ryan, who departed the legislature this year to launch his own public relations firm. “I just think you have three really complex and fairly controversial questions. And it’s not necessarily surprising they were left unresolved.”

Moore and Berger are lawyers, which Moore says comes in handy when they are defending the interests of their respective chambers. They both consider their relationship amicable and dispute perceptions of heightened tensions, though Moore likened their interactions to that of Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, a pair of Looney Tunes characters known for their dust-ups.

While the wolf seeks to steal sheep, the sheepdog is always there to thwart off the attack. When the workday ends, both sides punch out their timecards and leave work without any hard feelings.

“I’m the sheepdog, of course, looking out for everybody,” Moore said. “It’s sort of like that. You have your job to do there, but it’s nothing personal. We generally agree on most issues.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to prevent Republicans from gaining the supermajorities needed for the GOP to pass measures next year over the objection of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Democratic leaders hope frustration over the lack of Medicaid expansion and prospects of increased abortion restrictions will motivate voters.

“If you keep seeing the same play over and over again, the only way you get a different play is to change the actors,” said Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue of Wake County. “If you really want to address the issues that are facing the state, you’re going to have to change those who are setting the policy.”

Jim Blaine, a Republican consultant in the state, said he expects the GOP to have the upper hand this year with a message of fiscal responsibility and tangible results from last year’s long session.

Lawmakers returned to Raleigh on May 18, a day after the statewide primary election that had been postponed by 10 weeks. The General Assembly typically tries to free up members in an election cycle. This gave legislators limited time to push through sweeping measures.

“It is generally hard to get things done during a short session, and controversial issues are even harder,” Blaine said. “The lateness of last year’s budget also complicated things. There is a lot to run on for legislators in that bill.”

Medicaid expansion fractures GOP

Perhaps the most visible disagreement this year was Medicaid expansion, which would have provided health insurance to about 600,000 low-income North Carolinians.

Berger had previously opposed expansion, but he reversed his position this year, echoing points long made by Democrats that North Carolina taxpayer dollars are going to other states and billions in federal dollars are left on the table.

Moore personally opposed the Senate’s plan to expand Medicaid and insisted it lacked the votes to clear his chamber. He instead passed a bill nearly universally supported in the House to further study Medicaid expansion and pledged to hold a vote in December. But last year’s budget already included a study period for lawmakers, causing frustration for Berger.

“There’s no need to study this anymore,” an exasperated Berger told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s time for action.”

A budget signed by Cooper last year included a provision for a meaningful examination of Medicaid expansion by the General Assembly. Lawmakers held up their end of the bargain by holding a number of comprehensive hearings. Led by Berger, the Senate then passed the expansion bill. But neither the House nor the Senate would take up the other chamber’s proposal.

Medicaid expansion has been a priority of longtime importance for Cooper, who pleaded for lawmakers to resolve their differences.

“I’m encouraged that both the House and Senate agree that North Carolina needs to expand Medicaid,” Cooper tweeted on Tuesday. “It is imperative that an agreement is reached to get this done now.”

Berger held firm that it’s worth holding out for what he considers true Medicaid expansion.

“The idea that the House has passed Medicaid expansion is not something that we see,” Berger said as the session wound down on Thursday. “They passed a study to study expansion and they passed an intent to pay for the taxes. I don’t know that anybody can look at that and say the House has taken any substantive action in connection with expanding Medicaid.”

Lack of action by Republicans on Medicaid expansion in 2019 prompted Cooper to veto the two-year budget.

“This is a bad budget with the wrong priorities,” Cooper wrote in a June 2019 veto message. “We should be investing in public schools, teacher pay and health care instead of more tax breaks for corporations.”

Budget draws mixed reviews

Cooper’s hands could be tied on this year’s budget proposal, as it cleared the Senate and House with the support of more than enough Democrats to override a possible veto.

Blue, the top Senate Democrat, opposed the $27.9 billion spending plan, while Robert Reives, the top House Democrat, supported it. Neither Blue nor Reives could name any major legislative accomplishments that came out of the General Assembly this year.

“We probably haven't had anything outside of the budget that’s been a big policy jump over the last few months,” Reives said.

Moore and Berger said voters should feel comfortable with what lawmakers achieved, including setting aside $1 billion in an inflation fund, providing millions for school safety and giving teachers an average 4.2% average salary increase and most state workers a 3.5% raise.

“With the inflationary pressures that we are seeing, we are well positioned to deal with those things,” Berger said.

Critics note the wage increases are far less than the current 8.6% inflation rate over the past 12 months.

“As inflation continues to climb to 40-year highs and price pressures become entrenched in the economy, the average 4% salary increase given to teachers in the state’s budget is effectively a pay cut and will deepen existing staffing shortages as teachers and support staff struggle to afford to live in the very communities they serve,” the North Carolina Association of Educators wrote in a news release after the budget’s passage.

Some Democrats and education groups were also frustrated with the budget’s K-12 spending levels.

The state’s proposed budget for next year falls more than $443 million short of what a court-ordered education improvement plan orders, according to estimates from supporters of the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.

Cooper has 10 days to act on the budget once it reaches his desk. As of late Friday, the day the budget was approved, he hadn’t publicly weighed in on the spending plan.

Medical pot stopped

One of the most popular items lawmakers didn’t take up was marijuana legalization. A WRAL News poll conducted in partnership with SurveyUSA found that 57% of voters thought recreational use of marijuana should be legalized, while 72% believed medical use should be made legal.
The support for medical marijuana legalization stretched across all political parties, with 64% of Republicans, 75% of Democrats and 78% of unaffiliated voters favoring the policy in the April survey.

Despite the idea’s popularity, Moore refused to take up a bill that the Senate passed legalizing marijuana for residents who are determined by a physician to have a qualifying medical condition.

When a Democratic member tried to bring up the legalization bill on the House floor after 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Moore quickly shot down the request, saying, “You should’ve asked me at 4:20,” an allusion to the day marijuana users like to smoke up.

Cannabis advocates disagreed with the limited number of licenses that would’ve been distributed and hoped chronic pain would’ve been included as a debilitating condition. Even so, they were disappointed that nothing got sent to Cooper.

“This should’ve been done last year,” said Sean Parekh, a marijuana legalization advocate and owner of Cannabliss, a Chapel Hill hemp dispensary. His shop currently sells legal hemp products, but he hopes to expand the store’s offerings to include marijuana. “Now, it’s not being done this year, so it might be another year. I just really hope that we can put pressure on the politicians.”

Sports betting gets benched

Most respondents in WRAL’s April poll said online sports betting should be legal, including majorities of Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters.

But the effort to legalize online and mobile sports gambling for North Carolina adults and provide licenses to at least 10 operators fell apart in the House. A pair of measures that would have collectively legalized betting was supported by major sports franchises and facilities, including the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But several House members cited morality and societal costs in their opposition.

Sports gambling is legal at two Cherokee casinos in the far-western part of the state, and the Catawba-owned casino in Kings Mountain plans to begin taking sports bets this fall.

Initial analyses indicated that the failed online betting effort could have brought tens of millions annually in tax revenue in addition to licensing fees paid by operators and others in the business.

In the end, though, one bill narrowly failed, while the other narrowly passed. Since the two measures were intended to be approved in tandem, the effort was quashed and unable to be revived.

"I haven't checked its pulse, but by all reports, it doesn't have one," Berger said on Thursday.

A number of other items were also left on the cutting room floor, including a bill passed by the Senate to limit teachings of gender identity and sexual orientation to young students. LGBTQ rights groups viewed the measure as discriminatory, while Republican lawmakers saw it as a common-sense approach to protecting children from what some consider inappropriate classroom materials.

The proposal also sought to give parents more insight into what coursework was being assigned to their children.

The Senate approved the measure largely along party lines, with congressional candidate Ben Clark being the lone Democrat supportive of it. Moore declined to take it up in the House, saying he believed it could be improved next year and would be a waste of time in a short session with other priorities and a Democratic governor who would almost assuredly block it.

Abortion ahead

Republicans also declined to take up restrictions on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month.

Berger and Moore swiftly urged a lower court to lift the suspension of a state law banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The chamber leaders said they’d consider the issue more closely next year, which is when they hope to have veto-proof majorities.

Since coming into office in 2017, Cooper has vetoed measures that would limit a woman’s access to the medical procedure.

In the meantime, the budget now before Cooper includes $3 million for crisis pregnancy centers—nonprofit organizations that discourage pregnant women from getting abortions. Mountain Area Pregnancy Services, an organization with an office in Asheville and another in Waynesville, received $500,000, according to a budget committee report.

The group’s website makes several mentions of their devotion to the Bible and says it has staff available to “discuss abortion and all the ramifications and side effects that come along with the procedure.”

“We work with women and families experiencing an unplanned pregnancy or a pregnancy with a life-limiting diagnosis to honor their baby’s life,” their site adds.

When Democratic House Majority Whip Deb Butler voiced her opposition to the budget’s spending for such sites during Thursday’s floor vote, she was interrupted and asked to focus on the substance of the bill. Butler reiterated she was discussing a specific allocation.

“Women deserve the freedom to make these decisions for themselves after being given full, complete and accurate information,” Butler said. “These pregnancy centers by their own admission do not do that at all. These pregnancy centers are not medical facilities.”

After the budget’s passage, Moore and Berger reiterated their plans not to take up abortion this year.

“That’s an issue that really requires a good bit of thought and consideration of various opinions,” Berger said. “A lot of times on that particular issue the loudest voices are the voices that are furthest from the center. I’ve encouraged my members to talk to their constituents and find out how their constituents feel about what North Carolina law should be.”

As the budget worked its way through the legislature on Thursday, Democrats reiterated the need for more tangible results as residents face economic woes.

“We could've done more than what we've done,” said Reives, the top House Democrat. “We've got to get to that place. We've got to stop spending our time getting everybody riled up and spend more time saying, 'Guys, here are your problems. Let's all talk and figure out the best way to solve it.' You can't solve problems if you can't see all perspectives."