Gov. Roy Cooper released a proposed budget compromise  Tuesday as Republican legislative leaders continued to search for the votes to overturn his veto.
The proposal offers compromises on areas of disagreement from teacher raises and State Capital and Infrastructure Fund money to tax cuts and school vouchers. But on the conflict’s central issue – the expansion of Medicaid for as many as 600,000 North Carolinians without work requirements or premiums – Cooper is holding fast.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senator President Pro Tem Phil Berger both declined Cooper’s invitation to meet Tuesday along with Democratic leaders, but took differing stances on Medicaid.
For his part, Moore fast-tracked House Bill 655  – a GOP version of Medicaid expansion that has languished in committee since its filing in April. It was reported favorably out of the House Health Committee Tuesday morning and is expected to make its way onto the House floor for a vote by Tuesday evening.
In contrast, Berger continued to reject any discussion of Medicaid expansion and derided Cooper’s offer as an “ultimatum.”
Another attempt to overturn the governor’s budget veto has also been scheduled. Republican leaders abandoned a first attempt Monday evening when it became apparent it didn’t have the support to pass.
Cooper said he’s talked to individual Democrats and is confident he will maintain the votes to sustain his veto.
“The problem is we have not had negotiation,” Cooper said.
“What’s been happening is, I don’t think Republican leaders want to negotiate with Democratic leaders and me right now,” Cooper said. “Because they’ve been spending most of their time trying to get Democratic votes to override my veto. This is why we’ve not had serious discussions. We’ve put now a very specific proposal on the table. This opens up the matter to serious negotiations and give and take.”
But in a state whose political history and culture have been much more winner-take-all than give-and-take, are lawmakers prepared for the kind of negotiation and compromise required by true divided government?
Parties and priorities
Most North Carolina lawmakers have little experience with the sort of divided government standoff in which they now find themselves, according to Michael Bitzer, professor of History and Political Science at Catawba College in Salisbury.
“I think we’re kind of broaching new territory in that we really haven’t seen a sense of pure divided government like this,” Bitzer said. “Both sides have historically in the past been able to pursue their own agenda.”
Majority control by one-party has been the rule in North Carolina for most of its history. Democrats enjoyed political control of the state with brief and incomplete victories by Republicans since reconstruction. But Republicans made significant gains in the latter part of the 20th Century until, in 2010, they took control of both the House and Senate for the first time in more than 100 years.
Since then, despite intraparty squabbles, GOP lawmakers have operated with the sort of “winner take all” attitude displayed so long by Democrats, Bitzer said.
Since Cooper took office in 2017 and Democrats broke the GOP supermajority in the legislature last November, both parties have had to adjust to what it means to govern with truly divided government.
Republican governors Jim Martin and James Holshouser faced Democratic majorities in the legislature during their tenures, but they didn’t have veto power.
“There had to be more of a willingness to compromise then,” Bitzer said. “The veto changed the dynamic.”
North Carolina gave its governor the veto in 1996 – the last state to do so.
It was first used by Gov. Mike Easley, who vetoed nine bills from 2001 to 2009. He was also, in his last year in office, the first governor to have a veto overridden.
His successor, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, would use the veto 20 times over the course of her one term in office. As Republicans took control of both the state House and Senate for the first time since 1870, more than half of those vetoes were overridden.
When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office in 2013, the GOP enjoyed supermajorities in the House and Senate. They used them to overturn four of the six vetoes McCrory issued during his one term as intraparty tensions between the governor and the Republican legislative leaders escalated into public acrimony and lawsuits.
Cooper has so far vetoed 30 bills and seen all but seven overridden.
But last month Republican lawmakers failed to overturn Cooper’s veto of the “Born Alive Abortion Survivor’s Act.” It was a high profile test of whether the Democratic minority, having reduced GOP domianance of the General Assembly, would hang together to sustain Cooper’s vetoes even under intense political pressure.
This week Republican leadership is still trying to put together enough votes to overturn Cooper’s veto of the budget, but with little success so far.
Power and pork
Republicans did manage to get seven Democratic votes – Representatives Cecil Brockman (Guilford), Elmer Floyd (Cumberland) and Howard Hunter (Hertford) along with Senators Ben Clark (Hoke), Don Davis (Pitt), Toby Fitch (Wilson) and Floyd McKissick (Durham) – for the budget conference report largely by dispensing more than $350 million in earmarks for special projects and compromises on some legislative priorities outside the budget.
Brockman said he isn’t ashamed of trading his vote on the conference report – which was ultimately vetoed by Cooper anyway – in exchange for funding for non-profits and other projects in his district. About $3.2 million of the earmarks went to Guilford County and High Point – including $1 million for a jazz and blues festival.
“I think at the end of the day we have to be willing to negotiate,” Brockman said. “I want to be part of the negotiation. I want to be at the table. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And we’re at that point where we’ve drawn hard lines and everyone knows where everyone stands. But we’ve got to do something for North Carolina.”
Brockman said he continues to support Medicaid expansion, but it’s difficult for him to see Republicans compromising their ideological opposition to it as part of the budget negotiations.
“The offers made to put Medicaid expansion in a special session is a good idea,” Brockman said. “I think it puts all the pressure on Republicans to get something done on Medicaid expansion. We should get the best deal we can on the budget and then highlight a special session on expansion. If they won’t pass it, we can run on it.”
Rep. Floyd said he agreed that there is a need for continued negotiation.
“I simply don’t believe that just because the Senate doesn’t want an expansion, it can’t happen,” Floyd said. “There’s got to be some negotiation – and there’s got to be some negotiation on both sides. Remember, up here a person will say ‘yes’ today and ‘no’ tomorrow. They’ll flip on you.”
Rep. Clark voted for the conference report but has made it clear he’ll vote to sustain Cooper’s veto of the budget.
“If you look at the conference report you’ll see there were significant benefits to Cumberland and Hoke counties,” Clark said. “Clearly my vote was in part to register my satisfaction with what would be provided to the counties. Both those counties are also in need of expanded access to Medicaid, too – which is why I have no problem sustaining the governor’s veto and why, like the governor, I have that as a top priority.”
Sen. Floyd McKissick said it wasn’t earmarks that led him to vote for the conference report; it was a promise of a vote on a bill to restore Saturday voting during the early voting period.
“It was completely non-monetary,” McKissick said. “To me that was an important thing to try to restore and it was something I had an agreement about.”
McKissick’s appointment to state Utilities Commission also got its first hearing in the wake of the conference report vote.
McKissick said Republicans may have been willing to compromise with both earmarks and movement on certain legislation to make a point.
“I think it’s about a show of force sometimes – or potential strength,” McKissick said. “You look at how you might best posture yourself or position yourself not knowing what the outcome is going to be. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the House tomorrow or in the Senate thereafter. Anybody who tells you they do is probably mistaken.”
Bitzer said heavy use of earmarks – or “pork” as they are sometimes pejoratively known – is a common and often necessary feature of divided government.
“Fundamentally, pork barrel politics is what oftentimes greases the mechanisms for getting to ‘yes’ very quickly,” Bitzer said.
All of the Democrats who voted with their GOP colleagues on the conference report are Black. That’s also not so unusual, Bitzer said.
“It used to be that in the 90’s, Black Democrats would pair up with Republicans and support majority minority districts that disfavor white Democrats,” Bitzer said. “This kind of political expediency has been seen in the past.”
“If they see as a group an opportunity to help their constituents, to bring home the bacon, it may make sense,” Bitzer said. “But most of them have said they’re not going to vote to override. So they’re politically able to have their cake and eat it, too. If they know they’re not in the majority and they’re not going to able to influence within their own conferences, why not make those deals and show the voters back home that they’re willing to compromise and get something accomplished? Most of them are coming from safe Democratic seats.”
As if in answer to that point, Senator Berger released a fiery press release Monday evening saying that all budgetary promises made in the run-up to the conference report vote are “off the table” if the General Assembly fails to overturn Cooper’s budget veto.
“If legislators choose to block priorities for their own districts because of loyalty to the governor, they can explain why to their constituents,” Berger said in a statement.
There’s no immediate crisis in the two parties struggling to navigate the new reality of divided government, Bitzer said, since, without a new budget, spending will continue at the previous levels for the time being rather than the government shutting down.
But the longer it takes to resolve the issue, the more intense the political pressure becomes.
“If we are working towards say the beginning of school and some school districts in early to mid-August are finding themselves still funded at the previous level with increased enrollment and increased pressures, that may move somebody,” Bitzer said. “But it’s still a guessing game in this game of chicken: who is going to blink?”