@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Senate leader predicts: No new state budget next year either

Posted January 14, 2020 10:34 a.m. EST
Updated January 14, 2020 1:56 p.m. EST

— The state budget standoff that has delayed teacher raises, building projects around the state and a tax cut for businesses will likely continue into the next fiscal year, the Senate's top Republican predicted Tuesday.

Legislators have gathered in Raleigh for what may be a one-day session with little expectation this logjam will break between Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican legislative majority, who are divided by Medicaid expansion, education spending and tax cuts.

Spin that expectation forward past the July 1 start to a new budget year, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Tuesday. Normal even-year negotiations on the second half of the state's two-year budget will likely be thrown off by the same arguments dividing state leaders now, he said.

"I do not see us doing a second-year budget in the short session," Berger, R-Rockingham, said during a news conference.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter responded in a press release: "This shows the outrageous lengths legislative leaders will go to avoid negotiating with the governor, and it’s time for them to end their partisan obstruction."

Republicans are one vote shy of overturning Cooper's budget veto and passing their version of the two-year plan, which includes a rollback in the franchise tax for businesses, doesn't expand Medicaid and has less education funding than Cooper has called for. It seems they will remain one vote short. Senate Democrats have said repeatedly they'll stick with the governor, and Berger said Tuesday he believes them.

Berger said that he wasn't sure whether the GOP majority would try overturn votes Tuesday afternoon on the budget and two other bills, but he acknowledged that the state's political realities aren't likely to change until after the November elections. He sounded eager to get Democrats on the record ahead of those elections, accusing them of putting loyalty to the governor ahead of the teacher raises that are in the GOP budget, as well as the local projects included and dangled in an effort to pull Democratic votes.

Every General Assembly seat is up for election this year, under new maps ordered by a court and meant to correct a Republican gerrymander. So is the governor's office. The primaries are March 3, and Berger said he expects the General Assembly to meet Tuesday and then adjourn until the last week of April.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue followed Berger's press conference Tuesday with one of his own, appearing with leadership from the North Carolina Association of Educators. A number of educators, decked out in red, were at the statehouse calling for higher raises and more education funding in general.

"Please, we are not asking for anything that we do not deserve, or that we cannot afford," said Erica Johnson, a teaching assistant from Alamance County.

Some teachers got pay increases this year through the step increases that are all-but-automatic for teachers in their first 15 years. But non-certified school workers – bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and others – haven't gotten an increase, and teachers haven't gotten their traditional percentage boost beyond the step increases, which are tied to experience.

Other state employees got a percentage increase in one of the several "mini-budgets" lawmakers used last year to get around the broader budget impasse. Johnson said school employees deserve the same "respect and dignity," and she called on Republicans to prioritize them over corporate tax cuts.

"We can't teach them until the bus drivers get them there," she said during the Democrats' press conference. "We can't nourish their minds until cafeteria staff has nourished their bodies with food. Simply stated, without us schools cannot function."

Blue, D-Wake, focused on education funding, balanced against the tax cut and discussed Medicaid expansion only after reporters brought it up. Berger has accused Cooper of derailing budget talks by insisting on expansion, and he re-upped that line of attack Tuesday.

Both sides continued to point at the other. Blue described the Republican negotiating tactics, when the two sides last traded budget proposals in the fall, as "you give me everything I want, plus I give you none of what you want." The last GOP offer on teacher pay dangled slightly higher raises, but only if Democrats would override Cooper's veto and enact the rest of their budget.

Republicans pointed to a multi-year series of teacher raises that the GOP majority enacted in many cases without Democratic supporting, moving the state to 29th in average teacher pay in the country and second in the Southeast. Average teacher pay is about $54,000.

At least one measure was expected to move Tuesday: A $2.4 million infusion for a college scholarship program for the children of veterans. That measure will start in the House and appears to have widespread support.

As for Medicaid expansion, the multi-billion-dollar proposal to extend taxpayer-paid health insurance to North Carolina's working poor, Berger said Cooper's continued insistence on it makes budget negotiations pointless, even going into the next legislative session. He said Kansas' bipartisan agreement this month to move forward on expansion, as more than 30 other states have done, doesn't change anything in North Carolina.

"The only people who have asked me about Kansas have been members of the press," Berger said.

There's a House version of expansion with Republican sponsors and bipartisan support, including support from House Speaker Tim Moore. But it hasn't gotten a floor vote in the House, at least in part because Berger and other Senate leaders have said it won't clear their chamber.

Berger reiterated Tuesday that he doesn't support that bill and promised only "continuing conversations" and a cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it approach.

"I keep hearing [the House supports a bill], and I haven't seen the bill arrive to the Senate," he said.

Without a budget in place, the state is running off the fiscal 2018 budget, plus the new mini-budgets. Berger ticked off several projects stalled because of the impasse, including the planned new Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, and he said voters will have to judge Democrats for deciding Medicaid expansion is more important.

Berger also noted that running off the old budget, an arrangement put in place several years ago to avoid a government shutdown in cases like this, means most North Carolinians probably don't even know there's a budget standoff.

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