Politics & Government

What the state budget standoff is costing NC taxpayers

As the state budget standoff drags on and summer days wind down, taxpayers continue to fund a legislative session that continues a month and a half into the new fiscal year.

The estimated cost of operating the Legislative Building when the General Assembly is in session is $42,000 a day.

All members of the General Assembly are paid a salary — for most, $13,951 — and, when it is in session, a daily stipend, or per diem. All 120 representatives and 50 senators received $104 a day, seven days a week. They also each receive mileage reimbursements for one round trip home once a week.

This isn’t the first state budget that will be passed after the fiscal year started. But there are no signs of an approaching deal.

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the conference budget proposed by the Republican-controlled House and Senate on June 28. On July 9, Cooper proposed a compromise budget and renewed his call for Medicaid expansion. That same day, the House fast-tracked a compromise version of Medicaid expansion along with a potential override of Cooper’s budget veto. However, neither of those have been discussed and debated, instead rolling over on the calendar from one daily session to another as unfinished business.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, said the House will take the vote when it has enough support to override the veto. That means a supermajority — all Republicans plus seven Democrats — would need to vote in favor of the override. Otherwise the veto is sustained and the legislature and governor will have to negotiate a compromise.

Because it is up to Moore when to call the vote, Democrats wanting to uphold the veto don’t want to miss a session. And they don’t usually have more than a day or a few days’ notice if the next session will be a voting session.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, of Wake County, told reporters on Wednesday that Democrats found out only a few hours prior to that afternoon’s session that the session would not include a possible budget veto override vote. However, Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, had tweeted the night before that no votes would be taken on Wednesday.

No votes were scheduled for the remainder of the week, either. Most weeks, the voting sessions end Thursday along with committee meetings. As the summer has dragged on, there have been few committee meetings or floor votes scheduled.

“[Taxpayers] are paying us to sit around and not talk to each other,” Jackson said. He said that last week several Democrats wanted to go on vacation, to a conference or spend time with their children who are out of school for the summer.

Costs every day

General Assembly Controller Wesley Taylor said that the legislative session continuing into August isn’t usual. He said the lawmakers are paid their salary 12 months a year, plus the $104 per diem for meals and lodging seven days a week during session, regardless of how many daily sessions are held during the week. The amount is set by law.

Everyone gets the same per diem regardless of if they live locally or at the far ends of the state. Their mileage rate of $0.29 per mile is paid out weekly for one round trip regardless of how many trips they make.

When they are in session, the payments are automatic, Taylor said.

State lawmakers are state employees, considered full-time with benefits like other state employees, Taylor said. He said full-time employees include the sergeants-at-arms, police, security, custodians and cafeteria staff. Temporary employees during session could include interns and legislative assistants, he said.

“We estimate about $42,000 a day in addition [to regular operating expenses] when they’re in session. That’s the total bottom line,” Taylor said. That cost includes salaries, office supplies, electricity and other things to keep the building running.

Who’s talking to who

House Majority Leader John Bell, a Goldsboro Republican, said there’s still work being done, and he’s been there until September before.

Bell said it is lawmakers’ obligation and duty to pass the budget, and they have already presented House and Senate plans as well as the compromise between the two chambers, known as the conference budget. That’s the one Cooper vetoed. Cooper said he wants Medicaid expansion to be part of budget negotiations.

“There is plenty of talking going on,” Bell said. “The governor and the speaker have been talking. The narrative that no one’s talking isn’t true.”

Bell blamed the governor’s “Medicaid or nothing approach” to budget negotiations, and said that Democrats who might be willing to vote for an override have received threats that they would face challengers in Democratic primary elections.

But Jackson says there aren’t any discussions going on now. He hopes the House will adjourn for a four-to-six-week recess before being called back in to session if there are 72 votes to override the budget veto plus the 30 needed in the Senate.

Jackson said there have been no threats of primary challenges for Democrats who vote for the override.

“We are not a single-issue caucus,” Jackson said. “It’s also possible they get a primary challenger for another reason.”

Cooper’s office has sent out regular announcements that the governor is waiting for a budget counter offer.

That may not come.

“We put forth a budget ... that is our job,” Bell said, noting that it received bipartisan support. “We’re still working to get the override.”

Not the first to drag on

In 2017 and 2018, budget bills passed in June and the legislature adjourned the same month. In 2017, a technical corrections budget passed in October.

However in 2015, the budget was enacted and session was adjourned in September. Over 30 years, from 1989 to 2019, nine budgets were passed in August or later, including the 1998 budget on Oct. 30, according to General Assembly documents.

On Thursday, Cooper’s office sent out a release noting it had been 38 days since the governor shared his compromise offer on the budget.

“Where is the Republican counteroffer and when will they start doing their job?” his office asked.

Also on Thursday, Senate leader Phil Berger’s office sent out a release saying it has been 46 days without a new budget.

“I hope that Governor Cooper will drop his Medicaid-or-nothing ultimatum so we can move forward with legitimate negotiations on other topics,” Berger said in the release.

Meanwhile, $17,680 a day will be paid out in per diem to lawmakers while the session continues.

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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.