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The North Carolina state budget football is moving slowly down the field, with the end zone in sight but blurry.
Republican leaders sent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper their budget counteroffer on Tuesday, as first reported by The Associated Press. Cooper had already responded to their first budget proposal. Specifics are still being negotiated out of the public view until they reach a deal, but some new details emerged Wednesday.
What’s next could be an in-person meeting between the three most powerful people in state government: Cooper, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. Berger and Moore are Republicans, as is the majority of the General Assembly.
Movement in the latest negotiations include the amount of raises for teachers and other state employees. One thing not in the Republicans’ latest proposal: Medicaid expansion, Moore said.
“What I can tell you on that is this: that is not a part of what we have sent to the governor. Expansion is not a part of what we proposed,” Moore told reporters on Wednesday.
Rep. Jason Saine, chair of the Appropriations Committee and a head budget writer, said the budget negotiations could take another week or two.
“We’re getting to a good place. I feel really good about the fact we’re still talking. No one has gotten mad and walked away,” Saine told The News & Observer in an interview Wednesday.
He said that the counteroffer included raises closer to the House’s proposal than the Senate’s. For teachers, the Senate wanted across-the-board 3% raises, while the House wanted an average of 5.5% raises over the next two years, and the governor wanted 10%. Raises for state employees have ranged from 3% to 7% in their prior proposals.
Saine said he’s not sure there are enough Republican House votes for Medicaid expansion, long a Cooper and Democratic priority and a 2019 budget sticking point. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, just not likely as part of this budget.
The House Republican caucus met Wednesday morning and lawmakers were filled on on the latest counteroffer.
Moore told reporters on Wednesday that they also briefed Democratic House members who voted for the House’s budget bill earlier in the session. But neither party’s leaders are making the numbers in the counteroffer public.
‘Getting close’ to a budget deal
“There’s nothing that is outside the realm of what you’ve seen in the budget [proposals],” Moore said. The House and Senate each passed their own budget bills earlier this year.
“We should be getting close. We’re either getting to the point of having a compromise with the governor or simply proceeding with a legislative budget,” he said. That would mean the General Assembly would pass a budget for the governor to either sign or veto, as opposed to the current plan of agreeing on a compromise before sending it to Cooper’s desk.
Saine said they are “trying to keep it in between us and the governor right now. We don’t want it picked apart.”
However, he did say the latest counteroffer included higher raises and some changes on policy provisions.
“It did raise some of the salaries and things closer to the House position in the original budget. Some of the policy language that was in the budget that’s been in contention is still kind of being negotiated out. Some left in, some left out,” Saine said.
Saine said one aspect of the budget Republicans are working with Cooper on is digital literacy.
“Digital literacy is another one that didn’t get the funding the governor wanted initially. That’s something we’re open to doing more with him on,” he said. Saine said by digital literacy he means “providing a conduit for catching kids — really everybody — up to speed becoming a more digital citizen.” He said it would also involve programs to help the public access and interact more with state government.
Saine said that while the budget negotiations have been slow, “none of it has been sticking points where we can’t talk.”
Medicaid expansion has been talked about in general in both chambers, he said, but the “challenge, at least from the House perspective, is having enough votes to do so. I’m not sure we have those votes.”
Saine said he opposes Medicaid expansion and that his district doesn’t overwhelmingly support it.
“There would have to be something that I could get for that, something that I really wanted, and I’m not sure that that’s out there. But I also don’t think that’s going to be the big sticking point, if there’s a sticking point. That doesn’t mean shutting a door on it, it just means that I don’t know that it comes into this process,” he said.
Berger has also called expansion “bad policy” but Senate members have been discussing it, The N&O previously reported.
Emergency powers bill passed
The House also took the final vote on an emergency powers bill that would limit the governor’s ability to declare long-running states of emergency without agreement from other members on the Council of State, who are the 10 statewide elected officials including the lieutenant governor, attorney general and labor commissioner. The move is similar to other state legislatures’ proposals to limit executive-branch powers after orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bill sponsor Rep. Keith Kidwell, a Chocowinity Republican, deadpanned that it was a “noncontroversial bill” before the vote fell along expected party lines, 66-44. It now goes to Cooper’s desk to sign or veto. A veto is expected.
Saine said the issue is something the Republican caucus is “very concerned about. It’s certainly a point of contention with the governor. That’s pretty obvious.”
Limitation on the governor’s emergency powers was also in the House and Senate budget proposals during the summer, and is part of current budget negotiations with Cooper.
A Cooper spokesperson called the bill “partisan politics.”
““The governor must have the authority to respond quickly to emergencies and the record is clear that the actions he has taken during the pandemic have been effective in protecting the health and safety of North Carolinians,” said press secretary Jordan Monaghan in an emailed statement. “The pandemic is not over and we don’t need partisan politics that put people at risk,” he said.
On the budget, Monaghan also said that Cooper “hopes and believes that a budget resolution can be reached and good faith negotiations are continuing.”
Last week at the N.C. State Fair, Cooper told The N&O that “We’re still talking, and we want to get to a good place.”
Berger spokesperson Pat Ryan said Wednesday that they “remain hopeful that we can reach a budget compromise.”
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.