LUMBERTON — Millions of state dollars earmarked for Robeson and Columbus counties are threatened by the budget negotiation deadlock between the General Assembly and the governor’s office, said Lumberton’s resident senator.
Republican Sen. Danny Britt Jr. was referring to a back-and-forth between Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and legislators led by Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans.
The search for a compromise that could be approved by both General Assembly chambers and by Cooper began shortly after the Senate approved on May 31 a budget that would spend $23.9 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1. House lawmakers had approved their version of a budget days earlier. The two chambers since have formed a conference committee tasked with hammering out a budget compromise, which was unveiled Tuesday.
The search for a compromise with Cooper has been marked by the governor presenting his proposed budget, legislative leaders asking for the governor’s compromise points, Cooper sending a letter expressing a desire to negotiate the budget and its major provisions separately from Medicaid expansion, and legislative leaders asking for another face-to-face meeting and again asking for compromise points. There was a meeting on June 18 between lawmakers and members of Cooper’s staff, but it ended without a compromise.
On Monday, Berger and Moore delayed the introduction of a legislative compromise budget report in order to give Cooper more time to present specific compromise points.
The legislature has until Sunday to pass a budget. But the effective deadline is Friday because it is the General Assembly’s last working day before the new fiscal year begins. That gives lawmakers little time to craft a compromise with Cooper.
“If the budget is vetoed and there are not enough votes for an override we will operate on a continuing resolution,” Britt said. “What this means is no pay raises for anyone. No additional funding for anyone or anything. It means we can not conclude testing the rape kits. It means necessary pay raises will not occur. It means public safety and disaster preparedness will go unfunded. It means additional money for education and school construction goes unfunded. It means rural broadband funding will not be available. It means millions directed to Robeson and Columbus counties will not come.”
The government will not shut down even if a budget is not approved by Friday, said Pat Ryan, a Berger spokesman. Years ago, the General Assembly passed a law that mandates the government continue to operate at the previous fiscal year’s spending level.
The delay on budget action ended Tuesday when legislative Republicans unveiled a proposed conference committee spending plan. The budget proposal includes a provision encouraging Cooper to call a special legislative session to consider health care access legislation, including expansion. It also provides state employees with a 5% pay raise. Over the past five years, state agency employees have received a 7.6-percentage point pay increase compared with a 20-percentage point increase for teachers, he said.
“State employees were an afterthought for years, and this budget rightly prioritizes them,” Berger said. “The conference committee was able to go to the Senate position on state employee raises while still providing teachers with another raise.”
The proposed compromise budget earned praise from the president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
“We are grateful that, for the first time in decades, the House and Senate prioritized state employee raises in the conference budget,” Jimmy Davis said. “Thousands of SEANC members took grassroots action and contacted their legislators during this process. We appreciate that Speaker Moore and Sen. Berger worked directly with SEANC to ensure that relief for retirees is included in the report.”
In a letter sent Monday to Berger and Moore, Cooper asked that the legislative leaders not consider Sunday as a hard budget deadline.
The Robesonian obtained a copy of the letter.
It reads in part, “I was hoping we could stop with the letters, but you have not done so, Therefore, here is my response to today’s letter.
“I and my staff have told you that we would like to discuss the overall parameters of the budget, which would include eliminating the corporate tax cut and vouchers and putting that money toward a teacher pay raise, enacting a comprehensive bond package for schools and infrastructure instead of a State Capital Improvement Fund (SCIF) and expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance for more than half a million people. Obviously, there are other issues that would need to be discussed as neither I nor my staff have seen the budget you are about to ‘post.’”
The Robesonian obtained a copy of the letter Berger and Moore sent Monday to Cooper.
It reads in part, “We have requested specific compromise proposals from you for weeks. We have delayed introduction of the House and Senate compromise report to maximize time for you to provide us with an offer. You have not done so.
“The fiscal year ends on June 30, 2019. Therefore, Friday, June 28, 2019, is the last workday on which the legislature can pass a budget. Legislative rules and procedure require us to post a proposed budget three days in advance of a final vote. Therefore, we must post a proposed budget by Tuesday, June 25, 2019. We intend to do so.”
The letter goes on to include a formal request that Cooper share his compromise proposals.
Calls to Cooper’s office requesting comment and information were not returned.
The governor can veto the budget and make it stick if he can keep Democratic lawmakers in his corner. Cooper’s office told the Associated Press on Tuesday that legislators aren’t interested in serious negotiations on things like Medicaid expansion and a school bond package.
According to Britt, the budget passed by the Senate on May 31 included an additional $47 million in disaster relief for areas hit by Hurricane Florence and $250,000 specifically for Lumberton for flood mitigation projects.
The budget also establishes an innovative drug treatment court pilot program in Robeson County to make the court system easier to navigate, Britt said. It adds an additional full-time assistant district attorney in Robeson County and adds special assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office positions “to ensure the most violent and serious offenses are prosecuted in federal court,” he said.
It also provides $560,000 to start a new telehealth program in Robeson and Columbus counties that will help improve health care outcomes for rural residents, he said.