Facing, for the first time in his term, some hope of sustaining a veto of Republican lawmakers’ budget, Gov. Roy Cooper wasted little time Friday.
Cooper — flanked by teachers, health care officials, influential progressives and, perhaps, a few key swing votes in the Democratic caucus — slammed legislators’ $24 billion spending plan as a “failure of common sense and common decency” at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.
A few blocks away, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — perhaps the most powerful Republican in the state — held a press conference in the legislative building, chiding the governor for his decision. Berger argued that Cooper is holding up the state’s spending plan over Medicaid expansion.
“If (Cooper) says he’s willing to compromise, I’m more than happy to have our members engage with him,” Berger said. “I will tell you I’m not optimistic about his willingness to compromise based on his track record.”
It’s as if, eight months ago when Democrats broke Republicans’ veto-proof majority in both the state House and Senate, we could have written this contrived script out entirely then.
Cooper demands Medicaid expansion, a mostly federally-funded initiative expanding health care access for low-income North Carolinians.
And Republican lawmakers, who’ve rarely faced even a fleeting necessity for compromise in the last decade, scoff.
It’s only a matter of resolving whether the remaining negotiations last days, weeks or, gulp, months.
“Overall, this budget is bad, it prioritizes the wrong things,” Cooper told reporters Friday. The budget values tax breaks over public schools, he insisted, and “political ideology over people,” likely a reference to Medicaid.
Cooper was joined at the mansion Friday by Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Cohen has urged lawmakers to adopt Medicaid expansion since Cooper appointed her to the role in January 2017.
The governor’s budget also breaks sharply with Republicans on K-12 spending, teacher raises, and school construction. Facing an $8 billion tab for school infrastructure, Cooper, like House Speaker Moore, has supported a statewide bond committing billions. Berger and Senate legislators emphasized a “pay-as-you-go” approach, pledging to spend more than $4 billion on school buildings in the next decade.
Ask a teacher whether they’re willing to trust lawmakers’ promise of future action, particularly given the infrastructure bill owes to years, not months, of neglect from state leaders.
Overriding the governor’s veto will require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. And while a handful of Democrats voted with Republicans on the budget bill this week, it’s unclear whether any would go so far as to join Republicans in the override.
Case in point: Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat awaiting confirmation for an appointment to the state Utilities Commission, stood directly behind Cooper Friday. McKissick voted with the GOP to approve the budget Thursday, but it seems most unlikely he’d support the override.
Berger repeated his assertion Friday that lawmakers were open to a conversation about Medicaid expansion, provided it’s held in a special session, something of a ludicrous delaying tactic given the issue’s front-burner position for most of the decade.
Republicans leaders are expected to woo Democrats to their side with “pork” spending on local projects in the budget, a point Berger seemed to hint at Friday.
“I believe every member should vote on this bill based on what they believe is best for their districts and their constituents,” he said. “And not what is best for their political party.”
Berger claimed that he has not asked for nor received any pledges from Democrats to vote with the GOP.
Still, the Senate leader acknowledged there may be lawmakers in his party willing to consider expansion, but not enough to pass it. Berger added that he would not support the expansion, repeating the claim that the increased Medicaid spending could “blow a hole in the budget” if the federal government reneges on its promise to pay the lion’s share of the tab.
Far-right Republicans have made that argument for years now — even if moderate conservatives saw the innate logic and humanity in expansion — and that provision of Obamacare seems no more likely to be scrapped today than it did when the GOP first rebuffed expansion in 2013.
The House is expected to consider an override vote first. The haggling, I assure you, is already underway behind closed doors.
What happens from here on out is decidedly less predictable.