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Casinos are out, Medicaid is in for state budget votes Thursday, Friday

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(The Center Square) – Lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly have abandoned efforts to legalize casinos and video lottery terminals this year, and are ready to vote on a new two-year budget Thursday and Friday, according to chamber leaders.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said Wednesday afternoon his chamber would vote after convening at 10 a.m. on Thursday, and again at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Rules dictate two votes on different days are needed.

The budget proposal was posted to the state legislative website Wednesday afternoon.

Late Tuesday evening, Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said efforts to legalize up to four casinos and 35,000 video lottery terminals in the overdue state budget are dead for the current session.

Lawmakers said Medicaid expansion would be in the budget, a top priority for Gov. Roy Cooper since he took office in 2017. An agreement earlier this session tied the expansion to Cooper’s signature on the budget; as late as this weekend, proposals were wide-ranging and included a bill outside the budget involving casinos and Medicaid expansion.

The Senate will vote at 2 p.m. on Thursday and 9:30 a.m. Friday.

“Medicaid expansion will still be contingent on the budget becoming law,” Berger said in a late-night press conference. “We think this is the best, most prudent way for us to move forward.”

Talks of legalizing casinos and video lottery terminals has generated significant pushback from residents in rural areas where they would be built. And they were not alone. Neither party had 100% buy-in of its seats among the 170-member General Assembly.

The decision Tuesday came hours after a letter from five influential business leaders – Bob Luddy, Art Pope, John Allison, Rodney Pitts and E.C. Sykes – urged lawmakers to refrain from allocating funds to NCInnovation, legalizing casinos, or expanding Medicaid.

Luddy is CEO of CaptiveAire; Pope is CEO of Variety Wholesalers; Allison is retired CEO of BB&T; Pitts is chairman of Southern Elevator; and Sykes is a general partner with Aslan Ventures.

They said public investment in the nonprofit NCInnovation, meant to boost businesses that leverage university research, would “create market distortions and stifle true innovation,” while a proposal to legalize four casinos would “only complicate budget negotiations.”

Medicaid expansion, “which represents an expansion of government control and intervention in the health care sector,” could “disrupt market dynamics, leading to fewer options for consumers and potentially higher costs for those who choose to remain in the private insurance market,” the letter read.

A leaked version of a budget draft drew plenty of posturing from lawmakers and their supporters. On Wednesday, final details were still being finalized. A significant buzz grew from language on judicial changes and custodianship of public records at the General Assembly, generally acknowledged as the People’s House and open to the public.

The House and Senate introduced budgets this spring that aligned on spending about $60.7 billion over two years. The governor’s spending plan is a little more than $67.1 billion with booming raises, plus bonuses, for teachers and state employees. Each of the chambers, credited with nearly $1 billion in tax savings the last fiscal year, differed on a variety of items, from teacher and state employee raises to tax cuts.

In the unofficial draft, the spending plan would:

• Cut North Carolina’s personal income tax from 4.75% to 3.99% by 2026, slower than the pace sought by the Senate, with the potential to accelerate to 2.49% by 2029 if revenue triggers are met.

• Cap the franchise tax at $150,000, repeal the privilege tax, and extend sales tax exemptions on motorsports, senior care facilities, fuel for freight boats, aviation and other items set to expire in 2024 to 2028.

• Give noncertified school personnel and state workers a 4% raise this year and 3% next year, and an additional $4.7 million in recurring funds for bus driver salaries.

• Provide $250 million each of the next two years for NCInnovation, rather than the requested $1.4 million. That’s far less than the full amount included in the Senate plan but five times what House Republicans and Cooper proposed.

• Provide a 1% tax on ride share services.

• Expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program parents can use to send their children to private school.

• Provide $2 billion for over 200 water and sewer projects, and roughly $6.2 billion for the highway fund over the two years.

Among the policy provisions, according to the leaked unofficial budget draft, the plan would:

• Limit the State Board of Education’s ability to deny funding for charter schools.

• Increase the retirement age for justices of the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals from 72 to 76, and allow justices and appeals court judges to carry concealed weapons in court.

• Amend the sports wagering law approved in June.

• Amend the appointment process for the Judicial Standards Commission.

• Amend the process for approving the state’s community college system president.

• Prohibit state and local governments, including schools and colleges, from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.

• Delay implementation of a Parents’ Bill of Rights until Jan. 1 at the request of Republican state Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

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