Piecemeal budget can resolve impasse

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RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper insists that Medicaid expansion be part of North Carolina’s budget deal for 2019-20. Republican leaders of the legislature disagree. That’s the main reason why state government has been operating at last year’s spending levels since July 1. It’s the main reason the General Assembly is still in session as we approach the month of September.

There are other budgetary disputes, to be sure. Cooper wanted higher pay raises for teachers. Legislators wanted higher pay raises for state employees. They differ on how to pay for school construction and what other capital projects deserve state funding.

Meeting somewhere in the middle on these financial matters is doable. But whether to expand Medicaid is a yes-or-no question of momentous importance. Cooper surely knew insisting on it would shut down any budget negotiations.

On the budget dispute and other issues, Cooper has been getting some very bad advice lately from highly partisan and left-wing aides. To his discredit, he’s been taking it.

What they should have been telling the governor is that he started out in a weak position and has only seen it erode since July. Unlike budget disputes in Washington, there is no prospect in North Carolina of a shutdown. State government is operating normally, with spending levels maintained from 2018-19. There is no groundswell of public pressure for the General Assembly to cave. And there are popular things in the state budget Cooper vetoed.

GOP leaders are now pursuing a strategy of enacting some of those provisions piecemeal, including pay raises for public employees and a partial refund of North Carolina’s healthy revenue surplus. If Cooper vetoes them, he is essentially writing Republican ad copy for the 2020 election. If he doesn’t, much of the disputed budget will have been implemented without Medicaid expansion.

Because I have long disliked the bipartisan practice of rolling most consequential issues into a single budget bill each year, I welcome the legislature’s piecemeal approach in 2019 as more than just a temporary solution to a vexing political conflict. Generally speaking, I’d like to see the General Assembly run more policy changes as separate bills. There may also be good reasons to vote separately on operating budgets, capital budgets, pay raises, and bills to draw down federal funds for state projects.

I understand the case Cooper and his supporters make for Medicaid expansion, although I don’t agree with it. Do they understand the case against it? Based on how ineffectually they’ve responded to it, I suspect not. Conservatives think our welfare state is large enough already. They don’t want to expand dependency, they (properly) don’t think federal money is some free gift from afar, and they worry that any work rules or premiums instituted today will be nerfed or dismantled tomorrow. Everything the governor has said during the budget dispute has reinforced their opposition rather than softening it.

The legislative branch retains the primary authority over fiscal policy in North Carolina and clearly plans to use it to bypass a recalcitrant governor. Unless he offers a peace meal, they’ll do it piecemeal.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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