Politics & Government

Will Gov. Cooper veto the NC budget if Republicans don’t include Medicaid expansion?

The North Carolina House endorsed a state budget on Thursday and is expected to send it to the Senate Friday — but the plan is unlikely to meet Gov. Roy Cooper’s approval.

“The governor’s going to veto it,” Wake County Rep. Darren Jackson, the top Democrat in the House, said at the start of Thursday’s hours-long debate over the budget.

Cooper has said he considers Medicaid expansion a top priority this year. He said he wouldn’t necessarily veto the budget if it didn’t include the expansion, since expansion could be addressed in a different bill. That was in early March. Now, nearly two months later, no Medicaid expansion bill has gained momentum at the General Assembly.

Jackson proposed sending the budget back to a health care committee to be rewritten to include Medicaid expansion. He said that well over half of the members of the House support some sort of expansion, including both Republicans and Democrats.

And while they might not all agree on the exact details, he said, they ought to at least try finding a compromise that a majority could support. Jackson said the budget only needs 61 votes to pass the House, and he knows of “over 70 members” who support expansion.

“Lets put Medicaid expansion of some sort — what makes sense, what can get 61 votes on this floor — in this budget,” he said.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said it’s still too early for Cooper to say whether he plans to veto the budget.

“The Governor proposed a budget with clear priorities including a significant raise for all teachers, investments in workforce training and rural economic development, and Medicaid expansion,” Porter said in an email. “The budget process has a long way to go and we hope to see these issues addressed.”

And Jackson’s proposal failed to gain support among House Republicans Thursday, who said they didn’t believe the budget was the proper way to deal with Medicaid expansion.

Republican Rep. Donna White, a Johnston County nurse, has sponsored bills viewed as the conservative version of Medicaid expansion the last two years. She said trying to hurriedly pass reform in the budget instead of having a separate, more detailed process would offend those who have been working hard to make it happen.

Two other Republicans who have been at the forefront of much health care legislation, Rep. Josh Dobson of McDowell County and Rep. Donny Lambeth of Forsyth County, agreed with White that this policy debate shouldn’t happen in the budget.

“I want to close the coverage gap, too,” Dobson said, adding: “I look forward to having that conversation at the proper time but this is not the proper time.”

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House Speaker Tim Moore answers a question about a proposed state House budget during a press conference in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Lambeth, the former president of NC Baptist Health, said that even if the legislature decides to go along with Medicaid expansion, it would be a multi-year process requiring the state to coordinate with other entities including the federal government.

“This is not the time to delay our budget,” said Lambeth, who is a top budget writer for the House and also chairs the House Health Care Committee. “We need to move our budget forward.”

The Carolina Cares bill that White, Dobson, Lambeth and others sponsored last year died in committee. They tried again this year with a new bill called NC Health Care For Working Families, which also picked up several Democratic co-sponsors, but it has not moved out of committee since being filed a month ago. Another bill with Republican sponsors from the Senate, the Health Care Expansion Act of 2019, has also languished in committee this year since being introduced in March.

And while it remains unclear if the lack of movement on those bills will lead Cooper to veto a budget that doesn’t contain Medicaid expansion, Cooper on Thursday expressed his displeasure with another part of the budget dealing with the timing of proposed teacher raises.

If Cooper vetoes the budget, it will require Republican lawmakers to either work with him on some requests, or convince at least a few Democrats to side with them and against the governor. Republicans used to have a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature but lost that in the elections in 2018 when Democrats captured more seats in the House and Senate.

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