Senate leader Berger outlines agenda for upcoming session

Top issues to tackle: budget, Medicaid, teacher tenure, unions

January 16, 2013 

Phil Berger

MLEWIS

Senate leader Phil Berger said Wednesday that he’d like to cut the state’s $20.2 billion budget, take another run at changing teacher tenure laws, and put a constitutional limit on union contracts.

At a news conference, Berger, a Republican from Eden, sketched an agenda for the coming legislative session that would move the state to the right and is sure to roil labor, civil rights and anti-poverty groups.

The Senate will be responsible for writing the state budget in the legislative session that starts Jan. 30.

Two years ago, a new Republican-led legislature faced a budget shortfall of more than $3 billion. The budget is in better shape this year, Berger said, and a priority will be to look at spending reductions.

“I still think that overall spending in North Carolina is probably higher than it needs to be,” said Berger. He did not offer specifics on where Senate budget writers would look to cut.

The state has major decisions to make this year on how it will handle provisions in the federal health care law, including setting up an online insurance marketplace, called a health care exchange, and expanding Medicaid, the government health insurance for the poor and disabled. An expansion could add as many as 500,000 people to the rolls.

The state has three options for setting up the insurance marketplace: Run it itself; operate it with the federal government, or let the federal government run it.

The federal government will pay all the costs for most people added to Medicaid under the expansion for the first three years, rather than split the costs with the state as it does for those now insured.

Berger said the Senate doesn’t support a state exchange or a state-federal partnership, though members will continue to examine the issue. Adding more people to Medicaid doesn’t make sense when the program already has cost overruns of hundreds of millions of dollars at its current level.

Adam Linker, a health policy analyst with the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said legislators would make a mistake if they rejected a state-federal health care exchange and refused to expand Medicaid.

Having a federally run exchange would mean the state would give up its customer-service function, Linker said. Declining to expand Medicaid would be “fiscally irresponsible,” he said, because the federal government plans to cut compensation to hospitals that treat the uninsured, anticipating more people are going to be enrolled in the government health insurance program.

“Most providers are on board with Medicaid expansion,” Linker said, because they want to be able to provide preventive care and not have patients rely on emergency treatment.

Also on GOP agenda

Berger also said:

• He wants a law requiring voters to show a government issued photo ID when they go to the polls.

• He will push to change teacher tenure laws, with an eye toward tying tenure to evaluations.

• He supports a constitutional amendment on the “right to work.” The state already has a “right to work” law that makes it illegal to require a new employee in a unionized shop to become a union member.

James Andrews, president of the North Carolina state AFL-CIO, said the state has much more pressing issues to address. “Why are we wasting time and resources on such a nonissue?” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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