RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper insists that Medicaid expansion be part of a state budget deal for 2019-20. GOP legislative leaders disagree. That’s the main reason state government has been operating at last year’s spending levels since July 1. It’s the main reason the legislature is still in session.
Cooper also wanted higher pay raises for teachers. Legislators wanted higher pay hikes for state employees. They differ on how to pay for school construction and what other capital projects deserve state funding.
Meeting somewhere in the middle on these financial matters is doable. But whether to expand Medicaid is a yes-or-no question of great importance. Cooper surely knew insisting on it would shut down budget negotiations.
Cooper is talking about a Medicaid-expansion bill some GOP lawmakers filed in the House. It unambiguously draws down federal Medicaid dollars to provide Medicaid coverage to able-bodied North Carolinians under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. While it has some work requirements and cost-sharing provisions that Democrats dislike, and some GOP supporters have tried for political reasons to reject the label, Berger calls it Medicaid expansion because that’s what it is.
On the budget dispute and other issues, Cooper has been getting bad advice from highly partisan and left-wing aides. What they should have been telling the governor is that he started out in a weak position and has only seen it erode since July. Unlike budget disputes in D.C., there is no prospect of a shutdown here. State government is operating normally, with spending levels maintained from 2018-19. There is no groundswell of public pressure for the legislature to cave. There are popular things in the budget Cooper vetoed.
GOP leaders are pursuing a strategy of enacting some provisions piecemeal, including pay raises for public employees and a partial refund of North Carolina’s healthy revenue surplus. If Cooper vetoes them, he is essentially writing GOP ad copy for the 2020 election. If he doesn’t, much of the disputed budget will have been implemented without Medicaid expansion.
I welcome the piecemeal approach in 2019 as more than just a temporary solution to a vexing political conflict. I’d like to see the legislature run more policy changes as separate bills. There may also be good reasons to vote separately on operating budgets, capital budgets, pay raises, and bills to draw down federal funds for state projects. Let’s at least talk about it, and see how it works out in 2019-20.
I understand the case Cooper and his supporters make for Medicaid expansion, but don’t agree with it. Do they understand the case against it? Based on what they say, and how ineffectually they’ve responded to it, I suspect not. Conservatives in the legislature think our welfare state is large enough already. They don’t want to expand dependency, they (properly) don’t think federal money is some free gift from afar, and they worry that any work rules or premiums instituted today over progressive objections will be nerfed or dismantled tomorrow. Everything the governor has said during the budget dispute has reinforced their opposition.
The legislature retains primary authority over fiscal policy and clearly plans to use it to bypass a recalcitrant governor. Unless he offers a peace meal, they’ll do it piecemeal.
John Hood chairs the John Locke Foundation.