NC Gov. Cooper presents budget proposal with 18% average raises for teachers

NC Gov. Roy Cooper presents his budget

Gov. Roy Cooper released his proposed $32.9 billion state budget that includes hefty raises for teachers that he said would raise average teacher salaries to No.1 in the Southeast. 

Teachers and principals would see average salary increases of 18% over two years under the plan Cooper presented Wednesday. His budget also restores master’s pay for teachers and includes retention bonuses. 

“We have a lot of disagreements about what we need to do for education, but the thing we all seem to agree on that public education will improve significantly in North Carolina if we have a good teacher in every classroom and the good principal in every school, and that’s what this budget aims at,” he said. 

As Cooper previewed in his State of the State address last week, his budget pays for the school funding plan recommended by an education consultant as part of the long-running Leandro lawsuit. 

State employees would receive 5% raises in the first year of the two-year budget, and 3% in the second year. The budget proposal also includes retention bonuses for state employees that would be paid in two installments. 

The legislature writes and approves the state budget, so governors’ budget proposals are no more than suggestions. Governors must negotiate with legislators to have their priorities included. Cooper, a Democrat, enters the budget season with less leverage than he had in the  last four years because Republicans gained seats in both the legislative chambers in November. 

Cooper and Republican legislative leaders disagree on full funding to address the Leandro lawsuit. Republicans are fighting in court so the state won’t have to pay. 

Cooper’s budget received a chilly reception from House Speaker Tim Moore, who called it “a reckless approach to spending” in a press release. 

North Carolina is a growing state with low unemployment. Last month, state economists reported that North Carolina has a $3.25 billion budget surplus and more money in its emergency fund than state law requires. 

But schools have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, the vacancy rate for state jobs tops 20%, and, according to the Federal Reserve, the state’s labor force participation rate remains lower than it was in February 2020, before the pandemic hit. 

The NC Chamber has said that lack of childcare is keeping some parents out of the labor force. And childcare providers have a hard time finding employees. 

Cooper’s budget includes $500 million for childcare stabilization grants, money that goes to childcare providers. Federal money funded that grant program through the pandemic, but that’s going to run out this year. 

A bipartisan group of legislators filed bills last week that would budget $300 million for a stabilization grant that helps pay salaries.

Cooper proposed increased spending of  $1.5 billion on mental health. His office previously detailed $1 billion of that spending that would, in part, increase reimbursement rates for behavioral health services offered through Medicaid and expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. 

The budget released Wednesday includes $500 million for school social workers, psychologists, nurses and counselors.

NC Supreme Court to rehear elections cases this week

The North Carolina Supreme Court building in Raleigh

The state Supreme Court this week is going to take the rare step to re-hear two recently decided elections cases – one on redistricting and the other on voter photo identification. 

The redistricting case will be heard on Tuesday and the voter ID case on Wednesday. 

These cases were decided in December, when Democrats held a 4-3 majority on the court. 

The Democrats’ majority opinion found that the Senate map used in the last election was unconditionally partisan and that the state’s voter ID law was written with the “impermissible intent” to discriminate against Black voters. 

As a result of the November elections, Republicans now hold a 5-2 majority on the court. Republican justices agreed to Republican legislative leaders’ request to rehear the cases. The Republicans’ lawyers asked the court to withdraw the December opinion focused on the Senate districts and override the February 2022 court decision at its foundation. The February 2022 decision declared the House, Senate and congressional districts unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders and required all three to be redrawn. 

Republican lawmakers contend, and Republican justices agreed in their dissents last year, questions of redistricting with partisan intent are outside the purview of courts. 

The voting rights groups and voters backed by National Redistricting Foundation won the gerrymandering cases in the state Supreme Court last year. Their court brief asks the Supreme Court to leave the redistricting decisions alone, citing the legal principle that says courts should stick with previous decisions when the facts haven’t changed. 

The Republicans’ claim that redistricting is immune from judicial review “fundamentally misunderstands the judiciary’s role and the separation of powers under the Constitution,” the voting rights groups’ lawyers wrote. 

After they lost in state court, Republicans appealed to the US Supreme Court. Based on the Elections Clause in the US Constitution, state courts have no say in how legislators decide to conduct federal elections, Republicans argued. That would mean that state courts can’t tell the legislature how congressional districts should be drawn.  

The case drew national attention, with critics arguing that the “independent state legislature theory” could kill voting rights protections and void partisan gerrymandering bans in state constitutions. 

The US Supreme Court heard arguments in the federal case, called Moore vs. Harper,  in December. 

But the state Supreme Court’s decision to re-hear the redistricting case could nullify the federal court case. 

Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court asked the parties in the case for briefs addressing the effect on its jurisdiction of the state court deciding to rehear the redistricting case.

NC Medicaid expansion wins approval from Senate committee

The Senate Health Committee approved the bill expanding Medicaid in North Carolina that includes changes to the state certificate of need law that Republican senators want. 

The bill details the agreement that Republican House and Senate leaders announced last week. 

The expansion part of the bill would be void if there’s not a new state budget in place by June 30.

Depending on the timing of the legislature’s budget deliberations, the provision could push Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to sign a budget he doesn’t like. Medicaid expansion is a goal Cooper has worked for his entire administration. 

In his State of the State address Monday, Cooper told legislators not to wait. The extra months mean people will go without healthcare and the state and hospitals will lose federal healthcare money, he said. 

About 600,000 people would get the chance to sign up for health insurance under expansion. They fall into a “coverage gap,” making too much to qualify for regular Medicaid and too little to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. 

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of people who become insured through expansion. Hospitals will pay the other 10%. 

Many of those who would benefit are working but don’t make enough to afford insurance or don’t get it through their jobs, said Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Winston-Salem Republican who has been working on expansion for years. 

“I do think it will be five years down the road where we look back and realize how much of a difference this made for North Carolina citizens,” he said.

Cooper stresses support for education in State of the State speech

Gov. Roy Cooper enters the NC House chamber

Education as a key to expanding the state’s skilled workforce and maintaining its economic competitiveness was a central theme in Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State speech Monday night, a speech that included references to priorities in his next budget. 

He encouraged investment in the “education pipeline” that begins in early childhood. 

“A great workforce requires real investment from cradle to career,” he said. 

“We know that a great workforce also relies on public schools. Educating the next generation of workers who will fill the jobs that we haven’t even yet imagined is how we stay an economic powerhouse.”

Cooper said his budget will include full funding for public schools as recommended by a consultant in a long-running school finance lawsuit called Leandro. The budget will also have double-digit raises for teachers and principals, he said.  

The governor’s budget is a mere suggestion. The state legislature writes and passes its own budget and often ignores the governor’s priorities. 

His support for full Leandro funding puts Cooper, a Democrat, in direct opposition to the Republican-led legislature. 

In his January remarks opening the legislative session, Senate leader Phil Berger said,  “Success in education policy is about more than hitting some arbitrary funding goal,” Policy Watch reported. 

Last Friday, the NC Supreme Court with its new 5-2 Republican majority decided to reinstate a lower-court order blocking the funding. Last year, when the court had a 4-3 Democratic majority, it backed an order to fund the education plan. 

Cooper delivered a message directly to the Supreme Court. Justices were in the House chamber with legislators, members of Cooper’s cabinet, and Council of State members. 

“The Court should uphold decades of bipartisan Supreme Court precedent that comes down on the side of the children, because that’s what really matters – the children,” he said.  

Cooper has made Medicaid expansion one of his main goals of his time in office. For most of those years, Republicans refused to consider it. That changed last year when Berger said he supported expansion. Last week, Republican leaders announced they reached an agreement to expand Medicaid, but tied expansion to a state budget that won’t be final for months.  

Cooper urged legislators to not wait. 

“Every month we wait to expand not only costs lives but costs our state more than $521 million a month in federal health care dollars,” he said. If the state waits too long, it risks losing $1.8 billion in federal reimbursements for hospitals, he added.

Cooper took a preemptive shot at bills that could land on his desk that further restrict abortion, tell teachers how to talk about racism, and target LGBTQ students. He urged legislators to keep the state “off the front lines of those culture wars” that hurt people and cost jobs. 

“Use public schools to build a brighter future, not to bully and marginalize LGBTQ students,” he said. “Don’t make teachers rewrite history. Keep the freedom to vote in reach for every eligible voter. Leave the decisions about reproductive health care to women and their doctors.”

In a departure from tradition, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson delivered the Republican response. Robinson is expected to run for governor next year and used a good bit of his time delivering an autobiographical sketch that sounded a lot like a campaign ad. 

He reanimated grievances over COVID-19 shutdowns and credited Republicans in the legislature for the state’s economic successes.

Bonus content: Watch Gov. Roy Cooper address Leandro funding during his State of the State speech:

NC Medicaid expansion agreement announced

Image: AdobeStock

North Carolina is on track to allow about 600,000 people to gain health insurance through Medicaid expansion. 

House and Senate leaders announced at a news conference Thursday morning that they had reached a deal on expansion.

House Speaker Tim Moore called the agreement “carefully crafted and appropriately balanced.”

Republicans opposed Medicaid expansion for years, while Democrats supported it. Prospects for expansion changed last year when Senate leader Phil Berger announced he had changed his mind. 

A sticking point between the House and Senate had been health policy changes that Senate Republicans wanted attached, which included changes to the state certificate of need law. 

Under the law, healthcare providers need state permission to expand, buy major pieces of equipment, or offer new services. Hospitals had vigorously fought any changes to the law. 

The Medicaid expansion agreement includes certificate of need changes that Berger called “the most significant modification” since the law was enacted. 

The changes:

  • Eliminate certificate of need for behavioral health beds, for chemical dependency beds.
  • Raise the replacement equipment threshold to $3 million and index that number to inflation.
  • Increase the threshold for diagnostic centers to $3 million and index that to inflation.
  • Eliminate a certificate of need for MRIs in counties with a population of 125,000 or more.
  • Eliminate a certificate of need for ambulatory surgical centers in counties with a population above 125,000.

Surgical centers that are exempt from certificate of need under the provision will be required to have a 4% charity care requirement for those centers in the counties with populations above 125,000.

There will be an annual charity care reporting requirement.

HASP (Healthcare Access and Stabilization Program) will become effective immediately upon enactment of the legislation.

“What I was thinking about the whole time when Senator Berger was going through is what a huge announcement this is for North Carolina – what a huge policy direction this is,” Moore said. “That’s going to provide help for so many in this state. But it’s going to do it in a way that is fiscally responsible.”

Under the agreement, Medicaid expansion would be effective upon passage of the budget.

The agreement was finalized last night and the finishing touches added this morning, Moore said. 

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger.

The NC Healthcare Association said in an email that it appreciated that a proposal it made on certificate of need changes last fall was part of the process in getting to the agreement.

The Healthcare Association and other groups that have been working for Medicaid expansion applauded the announcement. 

Care4Carolina, a coalition that counts 166 members, called the announced agreement “a giant step toward making affordable healthcare accessible to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who are currently in the healthcare coverage gap.”

Expansion would benefit low-income adults without dependent children who earn too much to qualify for regular Medicaid but make too little to qualify for subsidized insurance in the ACA marketplace. 

“The statewide Care4Carolina coalition joins thousands upon thousands of North Carolinians today in celebrating the announcement that the NC Senate and NC House have reached an agreement to expand Medicaid in our state, and thanks the members of the NC General Assembly for their hard work,” Care4Carolina executive director Abby Emanuelson said in a statement. 

“We are especially grateful to President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore for their persistence and vision in bringing this life-saving issue to this important juncture. We look forward to working hand in hand with them to see it through,” the statement said. 

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of people who gain Medicaid under expansion, and state proposals have had hospitals and insurance companies picking up the other 10%.

The federal government is also offering states that have not yet expanded Medicaid a financial incentive to do so. North Carolina, one of 11 states that has not acted on expansion, would be in line to get about $1.5 billion. 

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement that the agreement is “a monumental step that will save lives.”

He commended the “hard work that got us here,” but said changes shouldn’t wait. 

“Since we all agree this is the right thing to do, we should make it effective now to make sure we leverage the money that will save our rural hospitals and invest in mental health. I look forward to reviewing the details of the bill,” Cooper’s statement said. 

Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue of Wake County said in a statement that Medicaid expansion has been “a long time coming for working families in our state.

“Governor Cooper and Democratic lawmakers have never stopped fighting for better access to good, affordable healthcare. This is a lifeline for working adults and rural communities.”

Policy Watch senior producer Clayton Henkel contributed to this report.