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NC’s state budget is expected in days, but it’s months late. What took so long?

Months behind schedule, the North Carolina state budget is finally going to be voted on in the General Assembly next week, according to Republican leaders.

The budget delay this year hasn’t been over issues between Republicans and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, as it was in years past. Republicans have total control of the General Assembly, with enough power to override Cooper’s vetoes. Instead, budget disagreements have been between the House and the Senate. Lawmakers of the same political party generally have the same agenda, but that doesn’t mean they agree on how much taxpayer money to spend every year, or on what.

There are several reasons why the budget is coming in September instead of June — when state employees and teachers should have gotten any raises outlined in the budget.

Budget ‘as soon as we can’

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, said on the House floor Tuesday that voting sessions are planned for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday next week, including budget votes.

Senate Majority Whip Jim Perry, a Kinston Republican, told The News & Observer on Tuesday that senators are expecting budget votes then as well.

“My understanding is we’re on track to be able to produce a final conference report and to vote on the budget (next week),” Perry said.

Moore wouldn’t say the budget is guaranteed, but that he would “be extremely surprised if we don’t have a budget voted on next week, because we’re down to just a few items.”

“Most of the contentious issues have been dealt with that are political,” he said.

That means tax cuts, which the Senate prioritizes, and raises for state employees and teachers, which the House wants to be higher than the Senate originally proposed. None of those amounts — tax cuts or raises — have been made public yet. Moore said previously that they would be “significant” and “meaningful.” Once the budget becomes law, raises will be retroactive to July 1.

Negotiations over the finance package held up some of the budget deal, but that was resolved weeks ago. Lately it’s come down to vacations and the logistics to finish the final work.

Moore said that the budget should be out publicly on Monday or Tuesday after final items are fine-tuned, including NCInnovation, the new nonprofit that gives money toward UNC System research aiming to turn ideas into businesses.

House vs. Senate

Moore told reporters after Tuesday’s session that the idea of Republicans in the House vs. Republicans in the Senate on certain things is “just kind of the way it is.”

“But what’s always fascinating is, I mean, it’s not like we represent two different states,” Moore said. “I mean, we represent the same geographic areas as our Senate. And it’s amazing the things that get tagged.”

Such things include the school calendar law flexibility that House Republicans support and Senate Republicans oppose year after year.

“I wish I could always explain it in a way that made sense, other than it’s just kind of the way it is,” Moore said.

Continuing resolution

When the new fiscal year started July 1, the state government didn’t shutdown like the federal government would have under similar circumstances. North Carolina has a continuing resolution that keeps spending at the same level of previous years until a new budget is passed.

That’s what happened in 2019, when a full budget never became law because of a stalemate between Cooper and Republican leaders. Instead, several smaller budget bills were passed.

This year, as the summer waned, Republicans considered passing a small budget bill for raises, The N&O previously reported. It didn’t come to that.

Less flexible is the start date for Medicaid expansion in North Carolina, which is tied to the passage of the budget. When that didn’t happen by Sept. 1, Medicaid’s planned October expansion date was pushed back a few more months, threatening to leave some residents without coverage.

This state needs a budget and it needs it now,” Cooper told reporters in late August. “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.”

Schedules and earmarks

House lawmakers came back to Raleigh on Tuesday for a brief voting session, but the Senate did not hold a voting session. And both chambers are done voting until next week, which could now include not just the budget, but veto overrides and other bills, including an elections bill that was added to the calendar and then taken off again Tuesday.

Many lawmakers had planned vacations for July and August, expecting the legislative long session to be over by then. So the timing of Republican veto override votes was built around legislators’ schedules, as well as budget negotiations. Republicans have a supermajority in each chamber by just one vote, so every caucus member must be present to ensure a successful override.

Perry, one of a few senators at the Legislative Building on Tuesday for the non-voting session, said that “scheduling is a very big thing” when it comes to the budget process.

“We are a part-time General Assembly,” he noted. North Carolina does not have set calendar dates for sessions to end, like other states.

“You had so many different proposed projects and districts that have to be matched up,” Perry said. “At the end, it’s a lot more tedious and takes a lot more time than people realize.”

The House and Senate each passed their own versions of a budget earlier this year, so the final conference budget will be their compromise.

“If one member, say a Senate member, puts in $7.8 million and a House member puts in $8.1 million for what appears to be the same project, somebody’s got to spend some time digging into that and finding out why the numbers are different,” Perry said. “What is the actual need? ... Will they be able to spend it in that two-year time frame? And then, if it is the lower number, then they’ve got to agree to what to do with that extra $300,000. That’s just one example.”

The budget that is passed during the long session, in odd number years, is a two-year spending plan. During even number years, a much smaller budget bill is usually passed with minor adjustments.

Casinos, Innovation part of latest conversations

House Republicans had a nearly four-hour caucus meeting Tuesday to make final determinations on whether or not to legalize up to four new casinos and include that in the budget. It has been discussed by lawmakers as being part of the budget or a separate bill, but there doesn’t seem to be enough consensus in the caucus for it to pass.

Moore told reporters after the House session on Tuesday that House Republicans are still counting the votes they might have in their caucus for legalizing casinos and other gaming issues.

Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, told reporters recently that he does not see casinos as being something that holds up the budget.