‘Move our state forward.’ NC Gov. Cooper urges Republicans to pass delayed budget

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday urged Republicans, who have a supermajority in the General Assembly, to finish and pass the state budget, which will include raises for tens of thousands of people and the implementation of Medicaid expansion, impacting thousands more.

“I wish Republican leaders would talk with the people that I have seen over the last two weeks,” Cooper told reporters after speaking during the opening ceremony of N.C. Freedom Park downtown. “People who’ve received letters they’re being kicked off of Medicaid coverage, insurance, when they could be on it if expansion had been enacted, that we’ve all agreed on.”

Cooper signed the Medicaid expansion bill, a bipartisan win for leaders of both parties, in the spring. But expansion cannot happen until the budget becomes law. Republican leaders in the legislature hoped to complete a budget by the end of June, when the fiscal year ended. But two months later, budget negotiations are still dragging out, and the delay could mean the state continues to lose out on federal money.

Cooper said he has also been “talking to people about how they’re struggling with the closing of rural hospitals, talking with school principals who have teacher spots that they haven’t been able to fill, or bus drivers that they need on their routes.”

The shortage of school bus drivers, a crisis across the state and beyond, means that the largest school system in North Carolina, Wake County, is going to have some students arrive after the school day has already begun, The News & Observer previously reported. The first day of traditional calendar public schools is Aug. 28. Raises are seen as one way to increase the hiring of bus drivers, as well as teachers and other school staff.

According to Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, budget negotiations are nearly complete, with the two Republican leaders finalizing funding for projects and earmarks in lawmakers’ districts.

Moore told reporters last week that final budget talks center on spending money from the federal American Rescue Plan, a state infrastructure fund and NCInnovation, a new nonprofit that funds UNC System researchers turning their ideas into businesses.

Though they won’t release the numbers, Moore and Berger said they have already settled on state employee raises and the tax cuts they plan to include in the budget.

Veto overrides and another recess

The legislature has been on a break for most of July and August as Berger and Moore negotiate the budget. Plans for it to pass in June became July, then August and now September.

“This state needs a budget and it needs it now,” Cooper said Wednesday. “We’ve seen the work that they can do in seven hours. They came and passed an avalanche of damaging legislation in a few hours.”

The governor was referring to a one-day voting session last week during which Republicans, and a few Democrats, voted to overturn Cooper’s vetoes of several bills. Legislation that passed included the controversial Parents’ Bill of Rights and two other bills targeting transgender youth and athletes.

Berger and Moore said last week that they expect to review the final budget bill in early September and that votes will be held during the week of Sept. 11, assuming their plan isn’t derailed. That means state employees and teachers will not get raises by Labor Day — observed this year on Sept. 4 — a federal and state holiday that recognizes American workers and the labor movement.

“I’m hoping we can meet that schedule,” Berger said.

Berger said that final budget items to decide on include infrastructure funding — from water and sewer to airports. He said that head budget writers are working through final negotiations of project spending totals.

If passed by Sept. 15, the budget would go to Cooper’s desk 11 weeks into the fiscal year. Rather than shutting down like the federal government when a budget isn’t passed, North Carolina just continues to spend at the same levels outlined in the previous budget.

“Surely they can come up here to get to work, work nights and weekends if necessary, and agree to a budget so that we can move our state forward,” Cooper said.

In recent years, budget delays were over fights between Cooper and the Republican-controlled legislature, which did not have a veto-proof supermajority. The 2021 state budget deal between Cooper, Berger and Moore didn’t resolve until nearly Thanksgiving. Responsibility for this year’s budget delay falls only to Republican leaders, who have total control.