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Politicos: Use of mini-budgets possible, less likely than 2019

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(The Center Square) – Two observers of North Carolina politics say the suggestion of mini-budgets is real, but don’t expect them to actually be used to finalize the state’s budget impasse.

Both chambers of the General Assembly are in agreement on a total spending amount, about $6 billion lower than the governor’s proposal, but their routes to the destination differ. The Senate and House of Representatives have proposals of about $60.7 billion over the coming biennium.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate President Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, told reporters Thursday they’re hopeful to secure a full budget deal in time for an Oct. 1 launch for Medicaid expansion. The budget must be signed by Gov. Roy Cooper for the expansion to happen, and earlier this week the Department of Health and Human Services said it was working on a plan with federal officials that would accelerate the process and make Oct. 1 a reality if a budget is ready on or before Sept. 1.

Carter Wrenn, Raleigh-based political consultant and columnist who worked with former President Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and ’80s and was an advisor to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, says “there are legislators who are happy with spending remaining ‘on par’ when there’s no budget.”

“No budget means spending is basically frozen at the prior year’s level,” he said, referring to a law passed seven years ago. “That said, legislators usually, eventually, pass a budget.”

Catawba College politics professor Michael Bitzer said lawmakers are in a much different situation than when they last employed mini-budgets in 2019.

“The idea of ‘mini-budgets’ that Speaker Moore floated was last used when the budget was gridlocked between the Legislature and the governor back in 2019, when both branches refused to budge and the state went with no full budget bill that fiscal year,” he said. “This time, it appears the tension is between the two chambers over how much should be set aside in balance reserves, along with some real differences in proposed state income tax cuts, according to press accounts.”

Four years ago, when Cooper had been in office two years without signing a budget, lawmakers used mini-budgets to get spending priorities implemented. A full budget never materialized.

Moore said Thursday decoupling Medicaid expansion from the state budget, as Cooper was requested, will not be done.

If a compromise is reached, budget approval could happen when lawmakers resume voting on Aug. 7, Moore said.

Senate and House leaders have agreed to spending on raises and bonuses for teachers and state employees, and could use the partial budgets to provide the pay increases and other noncontroversial funding to “keep government functioning,” Moore said.

Bitzer contends whatever the route, Republicans are in the driver’s seat.

“At this point, it really is up to Speaker Moore and Senate President Berger to iron out the details and finalize the compromise budget,” he said. “With Republicans holding supermajority numbers and the strength of party unity in both chambers, any gubernatorial threat over a full budget isn’t the roadblock it once was.”

Cooper, a second-term Democrat in lame duck status for another 17 months, went on social media to plead his case.

He wrote, “The GOP has already agreed to Medicaid Expansion and say they’ve agreed to state employees and teacher pay raises. But all of that is being held up to decide how much bigger piece of the pie they are going to give the millionaires. And all of this is happening while NC taxpayers fork over $42,000 a day just to keep them in session and lose $521 million a month in Medicaid Expansion funds.”

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