The state House has earmarked $3.3 million to go to Robeson County - $1.3 million to cap costs at this year's level and an additional $2 million in relief.
“The House plan is wonderful,” Robeson County Manager Ken Windley said. “It's a nice beginning, and I'm proud of our representatives for being so supportive.”
Robeson County budgets about $12 million a year for Medicaid, and that gobbles up about a quarter of the county's 80-cent tax rate.
The $3.3 million is a slice of a $53 million pie the House plans to send counties hungry for Medicaid assistance. The total state cost is estimated to be about $480 million during the next fiscal year.
Under the House plan, about $18 million would be used to cap counties' Medicaid costs at 2005-2006 levels, and the remaining $35 million would be divided among counties. Poorer counties like Robeson would receive larger slices.
“This is a major step forward in our effort to relieve counties of the Medicaid burden,” said David F. Thompson, executive director of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, which supports the plan. “This action will help stop the bleeding and will give us some time to work out a permanent financing solution.”
But the budget could hit a roadblock in the state Senate, which offered a compromise plan for $20 million in relief. What the Senate wants is a 1 percent sales tax increase for a long-term end to the burden on counties. North Carolina is the only state in the country that asks county governments to pay for Medicaid.
The 1 percent sales tax would generate $470 million a year.
“The House plan is a kind of Band-Aid to give counties relief,” said Sen. David Weinstein of Lumberton. “The Senate is working on more of an long-term permanent solution. What may need to happen is we approve the House as a stop-gap measure and come back next year with a permanent plan.”
Weinstein said whatever budget conferees do, they need to do it quickly. House and Senate negotiators could return to Raleigh today for more discussions. The two sides must get a final agreement on the $19 billion budget finished and voted on by Tuesday so they can give it to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature before the new fiscal year begins on Saturday.
Windley said the sales tax is not a bad idea, but counties like Robeson can't wait.
“If they want to do something on sales tax next year, that's all well and good,” WIndley said, “but we need some relief need now and the House is addressing that.”