It has not been the typical legislative session. Three months into the new fiscal year, North Carolina still doesn’t have a state budget. What it does have is a budget stalemate. But it’s a budget stalemate of a different kind.
Unlike recent federal budget stalemates, which resulted in the shutdown of government agencies and furloughed employees, this stalemate has been less impactful because lawmakers approved legislation in 2016 that says if a budget is not approved by the beginning of the fiscal year, budget levels revert to the previous year. Of course, pay raises and funding for other necessities like hurricane recovery must be enacted separately and have been.
After being on the legislative calendar for weeks, on September 11, House Republicans overrode the governor’s budget veto when 55 Republicans and 10 Democrats showed up in the House chamber. The vote provided plenty of drama – or should we say hysteria. All eyes are now on the Senate. The upper chamber however, has yet to hold a vote on a veto override, and at a recent press conference, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said he hopes to pass a series of mini-bills and other legislative measures, while intending to adjourn the Senate no later than October 31.
Let’s face it; legislation to revert the budget to previous levels when the legislature fails to pass a budget bill by July 1 takes most of the air out of the proverbial balloon. Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto was meant as a bold dramatic line -in-the-sand statement tying Medicaid expansion to the budget. Anyone who has been reading this site knows that Civitas opposes Medicaid expansion. Yes, there is a healthcare problem but expansion only makes the problem worse (Learn why Civitas oppose Medicaid expansion here ). Cooper has staked his political clout and prestige on Medicaid expansion. Three months later, it’s fair to ask: has it worked?
Democrats and other Medicaid advocates point to public support for the policy. However, polls have shown support to be soft. Recent Civitas poll results from August and February of this year indicate support for Medicaid expansion. However, when given details about who would access Medicaid benefits and how much expansion would cost, support levels dropped and sometimes significantly.
After the veto several left-leaning groups in North Carolina scheduled events to emphasize the dramatic impact failing to pass Medicaid expansion would have for the state’s poor. The protests were scattered, sparsely attended and died out after a few days. If Medicaid expansion was as popular as legislative advocates suggest, people would be in the streets and talking to legislators in their offices. Wouldn’t there be enough support to get a bill passed after seven years?
But it isn’t happening. Yes, HB 655, a compromise Medicaid expansion bill – supported by a handful of Republicans – is expected to be voted on in the House. Even if it passes, considering the consistent opposition Senate leadership has taken toward Medicaid expansion, final passage is a long shot.
Gov. Cooper is holding the $24 billion state budget hostage in order to implement his policy preferences. He bet in July he could leverage expansion into the budget, bnd it’s not working. Instead, Republicans are working around Cooper, moving forward with other legislation and mini-bills that already contain bipartisan support. The current drama obscures all this and relegates any legislative action – or inaction – as second tier status. That said, it’s good to remember legislators approved important measures this session; some good, some not so good, and some where the governor’s veto pen thwarted the legislators’ intentions.
Selected legislation of note from the current session includes:
S 399 – Session Law 2019-110 / No Penalties for Retired Teachers Who Return
Allows retired teachers to return to work in high-need schools and still receive full retirement benefits. Under the bill, teachers would no longer have retirement earnings penalized for earning additional income.
H 362 Session Law -154 / Fifteen Point Grading Scale Approved
Makes permanent the 15-point grading scale for assignment of A-F school performance grades. I oppose extending the fifteen-point grading scales, largely because it lowers the bar for grades. The law also requires the State Board of Education to study the weighting of school performance grades. How much weight to assign academic performance and academic growth scores has been a continuing controversy. Hopefully study authorized by this bill will bring clarity to the issue.
H 75 – Session Law 2019-222 / School Safety Funds
Legislation appropriates $39 million and $30 million in funds over the next two years, respectively, for school safety. Legislation establishes school safety grant programs and requires the Department of Public Instruction to report school threat assessments to the State Bureau of Investigation.
S 290 – Session Law 2019 -182 / ABC Reform Legislation
Legislation amends North Carolina’s archaic alcohol beverage control laws. Among other things, the legislation removes current restrictions on what distilleries can sell at a distillery for off premise consumption. Allows the holder of a distillery permit to sell different types of alcoholic beverages for consumption.
S 621 – Session Law 2019 – 212 / Testing Reduction
The bill eliminates North Carolina Final Exams (NCFEs). NCFEs were required to meet completion for courses that did not have End-of-Grade or End-of-Course assessment. NCFEs were developed to help teachers with assessment however they are not required by state or federal law. Legislation also requires a review of third grade end-of-grade reading test to ensure it is aligned with Read-to-Achieve alternative assessment measures.
H 131 – Session Law 2019 -35 / Repeal the Map Act
Legislation repeals Transportation Corridor Official Map Act. The unpopular act empowered local and state government to adopt maps for future use and place restrictions on how properties could be used within certain corridors.
S 127 – -Session Law 2019-80 / Whistleblower protections extended
Extends protection to whistleblowers who report inappropriate behavior to legislative panels. The legislation also requires individuals to provide legislative panels with any requested information.
SB 86 – Session Law 2019 -202 / Association Health Plans
Legislation establishes standards for Association Health Plans (AHPs) and multiple employment welfare arrangements. AHPs allow small businesses to join together to offer employees the same similar benefit plans as those offered by large companies.
HB 924 – Session Law 2019-82 / Adds Course in Personal Finance for H.S. graduation requirement
Legislation clarifies eligibility for extending teacher contracts, requires students to take a course in economics and personal finance as a graduation requirement. Also requires professional development for economics and personal finance teachers.
S 310 – Session Law 2019 -17 / Rural Broadband
Legislation removes restrictions prohibiting electrical membership corporations from pursuing broadband implementation. Also facilitates implementation of broadband services in rural areas.
H 609 – Session Law 2019-208 – Raises for correctional facility officers
Legislation provides raises of 2.5 percent for adult correctional facility officers. It also provides additional funds for pay differential and salary supplements and makes changes to annual leave program.
HB 226 – Session Law 2019-209 – State Employee Raises
Legislation awards state employees salary increases of 2.5 percent for each of the next two years. Raises cover Council of State, executive Branch, certain judicial branch employees, employees of local boards of education, community colleges, employees of the University of North Carolina as well as schools operated by state agencies included in the legislation.
Allows for changes in annual leave and pay raises of 2.5 percent for the next two years for employees for all officers of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
HB 777 – Session Law 2019 – 211 / Pay Raises for Law Enforcement Officers
Legislation provides for changes in annual leave and provides raises of 2.5 percent to law enforcement officers with the State Board of Investigation and State Alcohol Law Enforcement agency.
S 429 -Session Law 2019 -224 / Disaster Recovery
Legislation provides $117.6 million in reallocated and transferred funds to be used for disaster recovery funds. Legislation also includes specific grants for municipalities and areas impacted by Hurricane Dorian and Florence.
To date, Gov. Cooper has vetoed nine bills that have come to his desk. The legislature has failed to override any of the bills, even though the Senate did override Cooper’s veto on SB 359. A selected listing of bills vetoed by the governor:
SB -359 Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act
Legislation requires children who are born after a failed abortion to be given the same level of care and treatment as all other patients. Senate overrode governor’s veto. The House failed to do so.
S 392 – Changes to Charter School Laws
Allows state superintendent to approve bonds to finance or refinance charter schools, calls for criminal background checks for all charter school board members, changes criteria for charter school renewal, and lifts the current enrollment cap on virtual charter schools.
H 370 – Cooperation with ICE Detainers
A bill requiring local law enforcement officials to cooperate with ICE (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement) to enforce immigration policy.
S 438 – Modify Read-to-Achieve Act
This legislation details modifications to improve childhood literacy. Changes include modifications to improve the delivery of literacy instruction and teacher preparation and ensure that literacy instruction and curriculum align with Read to Achieve, Sen. Berger’s signature legislative program to ensure students are reading proficiently by third grade.
H -555 – Medicaid Transformation
Legislation appropriates funds to complete transformation of Medicaid program from a fee-for-service based program to a managed care program. That Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill, even though his own Health and Human Services Secretary championed many of the efforts to transform Medicaid, suggestsMedicaid expansion might have been more important than Medicaid transformation.
The bill aims to lessen the regulatory burden on North Carolinians. The legislation amends laws related to state and local government regulation, agriculture, energy and natural resources regulation.
In most years, legislators would be back in their districts in early October or out campaigning. However, the 2019-20 long session is living up to its name. Gov. Cooper’s decision to tie the budget to Medicaid expansion is risky. Three months later there is little evidence that it has worked. A vote on H 655 might help address that issue, however, passage in the Senate will be an uphill battle.
Legislation to revert budgets to the previous year if lawmakers failed to approve a budget has helped to avert a major budget stalemate, as has the Republican strategy of passing mini-bills in areas of the budget where there is bipartisan agreement. Such tactics have seemed to overshadow some of the other legislative accomplishments and defeats.
The Senate may yet vote to override Cooper’s budget veto. However, no date has been set. If anything, lawmakers have learned how to live without a budget – and how to minimize the disruptions. While the legislature’s actions and inaction certainly have an impact, most people’s lives continue on normally. It will be interesting to see if the public has the same sentiments next November when they cast their ballots.