Here in the last week of October, almost four months after a new state budget was supposed to have been in place and with multiple plot-lines coming to a head, North Carolina’s government is like a somewhat rickety aircraft stressed to the limits amid a thunderstorm.
Not only that, but there’s fighting in the cockpit!
- Republican chiefs in the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seem to be in the final stages of negotiating a budget that Cooper – for a change – won’t feel obliged to veto.
- Figuring in the talks has been a possible broadening of the state’s Medicaid program, as the governor to his credit long has sought and his legislative foes long have resisted. From Cooper’s standpoint, simply getting to the point of considering Medicaid expansion that would improve health care access for many thousands of low-income citizens has to represent progress, compared to legislators’ flat-out refusals in recent years.
- In tandem with the budget dispute is the latest chapter in the state’s long struggle over funding for public schools – in particular, those schools serving high proportions of economically challenged families and communities.
- A judge who oversees the state’s response to a court ruling that aimed to bolster schools in high-poverty districts is threatening to force the legislature’s hand if it doesn’t include more public education funds in the pending budget deal.
- Legislators already accuse Superior Court Judge David Lee of overstepping his authority, so we could be on the brink of a massive collision between branches of government. What’s at stake is nothing less than the ability of many thousands of students to get the “sound basic” education to which the state Supreme Court has said they’re constitutionally entitled.
- As if the turbulence over the budget and its school finance provisions weren’t serious enough, the legislature is moving toward decisions that could profoundly affect the make-up of the state’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly itself for years to come. As required so that every vote carries more or less equal weight, new congressional and legislative voting districts are being drawn in accord with population growth and shifts revealed by the 2020 census.
- Here’s the question: Will Republicans seeking to shape districts in their candidates’ favor resort to the kind of gerrymandering that courts repeatedly have found to be unconstitutional in discriminating against African-American voters and in some instances against voters who happen to be Democrats? Voting rights advocates, including groups such as the N.C. Council of Churches, hope to see the process end with all voters given a fair chance to influence the choice of their elected leaders and thus the policies that have an inside track toward adoption.
Gov. Cooper in 2019 vetoed the legislature’s last stab at passing a budget according to the usual two-year schedule, and his Democratic allies in the state House and Senate joined in sufficient numbers to block Republican attempts at a veto override.
The deal-breakers for the governor boiled down to low-ball expenditures for public schools, including teacher pay; tax cuts that continued to hamper the state’s ability to invest in a range of programs; and a refusal to expand Medicaid despite the anticipated health and economic benefits.
Since then, the pandemic has put North Carolina through a tragic stress test. Gaps between our affluent, metro-area counties and their rural, small-town counterparts – gaps in health care, job opportunities, school quality – have been magnified. A new openness to Medicaid expansion on the part of some Republican legislators – encouraged by GOP officials in several mountain counties hammered by the virus and loss of jobs – could be an understandable response.
But if expansion still doesn’t have enough support to be included in the budget that’s now in final talks, as it may well not, at least advocates could push for an agreement to have it fully considered as a stand-alone measure. There can be no credible objections to accepting a huge new infusion of federal Medicaid funds for which the state would qualify, or to improving health-care access for people who now typically can’t afford even the routine care that many among us take for granted.
Fairer for teachers? Read more