Politics & Government

‘Be here and vote or not.’ North Carolina’s budget could become law with one more vote

If there’s an October surprise at the North Carolina legislature this month, it won’t be a budget veto override vote in the Senate.

The surprise budget override vote in the House on Sept. 11 when many Democrats were absent drew national attention and accusations of trickery by Republicans from Democrats, who weren’t there because they didn’t think it would be a voting session. Now the budget is one vote away from becoming law, more than three months into the new fiscal year.

The surprise vote in the House won’t be repeated in the Senate, Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters on Tuesday at a news conference. Senate rules call for at least 24 hours’ notice to the minority leader — Sen. Dan Blue — and Berger said Republicans would follow the rules.

“There should be no question that should the budget override vote come up, that every member of the Senate has been told publicly that they have a choice to make — be here and vote or not,” Berger said.

It won’t happen this week, though. First up is “clearing the deck” of budget provisions that have broad, bipartisan support, Berger said. “There’s no sense holding those things up because of an unrelated disagreement on the budget overall.”

Medicaid expansion has been at the heart of the holdup on the budget. Cooper has said he just wants it to be part of the budget negotiations, while Senate Republicans have called it holding the budget “hostage.”

One of the disagreements within the budget is how much of a raise to give teachers, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Also held up are raises for UNC system employees, community college employees and non-certified school personnel, which did not have broad agreement and hence did not make it to a separate floor vote as part of a “mini-budget” bill.

Mini-budget bills to be considered deal with the historic building tax credit, community colleges, Department of Transportation, funding to move many 16- and 17-year-olds from the adult corrections system to the juvenile justice system and funding for rural broadband service.

Berger said the mini budgets would be the same or nearly the same as what was already in the budget and what Cooper proposed as well. It will take a few days to go through committees and then the floor for votes.

“After this week though, things are a little more uncertain. I’ll remind everybody that the budget conference report passed the Senate with bipartisan supermajorities twice,” Berger said.

The budget that Cooper vetoed passed the Senate 33-15 in June.

Unlike the seven Democratic votes that would have been needed to override a veto in the House if everyone was present, only one Democrat is needed to vote with all Senate Republicans for the needed three-fifths supermajority. Four Democrats voted for the budget — Sens. Floyd McKissick, Don Davis, Ben Clark and Toby Fitch.

The Senate still needs to seat Rob Bryan, a Republican who has been chosen to fill Dan Bishop’s seat, a move Cooper is expected to approve this week. Bryan is a former state representative. Bishop was elected to Congress in a special election in September.

Cooper responded to Berger’s comments with a statement from spokesperson Ford Porter, calling it “more empty excuses for the refusal to give teachers a meaningful raise or close the health coverage gap for 500,000 North Carolinians. The Governor has offered a reasonable compromise and North Carolinians deserve better than Republican obstruction and excuses,” the statement said.

Berger, who is president pro tempore of the Senate, said regardless of what the House does, the Senate will adjourn on Oct. 31. He said senators might come back after the December filing period for the 2020 General Assembly elections. Berger suggested Democrats are being faced with pressure to stand with Cooper and wouldn’t have that same pressure after candidates are done filing for office.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.