With a close – and bitterly contentious – vote over a potential veto of this year’s state budget  looming, North Carolina lawmakers say GOP legislators are scrambling to win over Democrats behind the scenes by offering “pork” spending on local projects.
While not uncommon around budget time as top lawmakers mull ways to win over votes considered to be on the fence, the backdoor wheeling and dealing is of particular import this year, with Democrats hoping to sustain Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power and win their top prize – Medicaid expansion.
“I know there is pork out there that they can throw at members,” Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat serving as the House Democratic Leader, said Tuesday. “But I hope that all of the House Democrats know that Medicaid expansion can make a big difference in the lives of North Carolinians across the state.”
Jackson said he knows of Democrats who’ve been approached with budget sweeteners, but none have pledged their vote to the GOP.
Multiple sources in the House and Senate acknowledged a back and forth over budget projects intended to win over dissenting Democrats, but with little evidence of traction for majority party leaders.
Neither House Speaker Tim Moore nor Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger responded when Policy Watch sought comment on the matter.
Democrats and Cooper have long prized expansion of the Medicaid program, a mostly-federally funded expansion that could provide health care access to hundreds of thousands of low-income North Carolinians.
Yet Democrats’ hopes would be all but dashed for Medicaid expansion this year if GOP budget authors are able to peel off a handful of dissenting minority party members in a potential veto showdown, which is all but certain given Cooper’s withering criticism of both the House and Senate budget proposals.
“With their budget, Senate Republicans once again prioritize more corporate tax cuts at the expense of public education, clean water and providing affordable health care for hard working North Carolinians,” Cooper’s office said last week. “These are unacceptable priorities and Governor Cooper will continue pushing for a budget that represents middle class families instead of special interests and corporate shareholders.”
Top Republicans like Berger have been adamant that they would block Medicaid expansion, claiming federal government leaders would eventually leave North Carolina to pay the tab and that expansion would provide a disincentive for recipients to work.
Senate leaders approved a $23.9 billion spending plan last week that breaks with Cooper and Democrats on several fronts, including teacher pay, overall education funding, Republicans’ sizable cuts – about 50 percent over two years — to corporate franchise tax rates, and, of course, Medicaid, setting up a potentially bitter battle over spending priorities in the coming weeks and, possibly, months.
Since the Affordable Care Act – popularly known as “Obamacare” – passed in 2010, 37 U.S. states (including the District of Columbia) have adopted the federally-bankrolled boost for the poor . North Carolina is among 14 states doggedly refusing the initiative. Most of those are Republican-controlled states in the South.
Advocates say Republicans’ blockage of Medicaid expansion has cost the state money and lives each year as the state rejected billions in federal cash that would otherwise be used to aid poor residents in need of health care. Proponents at the progressive N.C. Justice Center – Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit – have planned “vigils” across the state Wednesday  for individuals who’ve “suffered or died” because the state didn’t expand Medicaid.
The push for expansion has its supporters on the right as well, with former GOP presidential candidate and ex-Ohio governor John Kasich making an impassioned plea in Raleigh in March .
To override a gubernatorial veto, proponents would need to secure a three-fifths majority in the House and Senate. That’s 30 votes in the Senate and 72 in the House, if all members are present.
With a current advantage of 65-55 in the House, Republicans would need to win over an additional seven Democrats to prevail. In the Senate, where the Republican margin is 29-21, a single vote would do.
Senate Republicans just reached the 30-vote tally last week, when three Democrats – Sen. Gladys Robinson of Guilford County, Sen. Ben Clark of Cumberland and Hoke counties, and Sen. Milton Fitch Jr. of Halifax, Edgecombe, and Wilson counties – voted for the budget plan.
None of the trio responded to Policy Watch interview requests this week, but the Greensboro News & Record wrote Monday that Robinson backed the budget because of its spending provisions aimed at tornado relief and N.C. A&T State University, which is located in Robinson’s district.
However, it seems unlikely those Democrats would support a veto override if it came down to it. Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue’s office said Tuesday that the three Democrats have promised to uphold a veto.
Blue seemed to express some confidence last week, when he compared a veto to the NBA playoffs, insisting that longtime lawmakers know “that the real game is when the playoffs start.”
In the House, Jackson said he could see a handful of Democrats branching off from their caucus on the budget if House and Senate negotiations yield a spending package with ample raises for both teachers and state employees.
But Jackson doesn’t believe Republicans would convince seven Democrats in the House to support an override, a lofty number given the parties’ often strident differences on education funding. Democrats were also incensed over the Senate’s proposed cuts to an eastern North Carolina hospital and the GOP proposal to move the state’s Department of Health and Human Services – which employs about 2,300 people – from Raleigh into rural Granville County, about 40 miles to the north.
Rep. Verla Insko, a veteran Democrat from Orange County who sits on the House budget committee, was also confident.
“House Democrats understand the importance of this vote,” Insko told Policy Watch. “We stand with Gov. Cooper and will sustain his veto.”
Members of the state House voted nearly unanimously Tuesday to refuse to concur with the Senate’s version of the budget, which means a conference committee of chosen legislators from both chambers is expected to hash out their differences over the next week.
Lawmakers are expected to present and vote on their agreed upon plan next week, which would then be turned over to the governor’s office for approval or veto.