Sen. Phil Berger speaks on power shift in NC government
For the most part, North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers can be a dour bunch, but this week some of them showed a funny streak.
After Gov. Roy Cooper proposed his $25.2 billion budget, the state Senate’s three Republican budget chairs said in statement: “After speaking for months about the importance of collaboration, Governor Cooper didn’t bother sharing his budget with anybody in the legislature before his press conference.”
That’s a hilarious complaint from a majority that has absolutely blocked, scorned and ignored Cooper at every turn since he took office in 2017. It’s not exactly a record that encourages consultation. And, given the Republican reception to his spending plan, it’s clear consultation wouldn’t have made a difference.
The three budget chairs, Sens. Harry Brown, Kathy Harrington and Joyce Krawiec, said: “This is not a serious budget proposal. It is a political document that seems designed to cater to the Governor’s tax-and-spend base that put us in a hole ten years ago.”
That response reveals Republicans’ insincerity about cooperating with Cooper this session. They’ve immediately rejected an effort to meet them halfway. Significantly, the governor’s budget doesn’t contain any “tax and spend” proposals. It doesn’t call for any tax increases. That’s a major Democratic concession since a rollback of the Republicans’ Kansas-style trickle-down experiment is needed immediately.
Cooper’s budget does ask for $78 million over two years to support Medicaid expansion, but that would be paid by assessments on hospitals and insurance providers. It also would save taxpayers money as Medicaid would pick up medical services the state currently covers. Meanwhile, expansion would reduce health care costs that are shifted to the privately insured, generate more state revenue by creating jobs, and bolster rural hospitals. Some Republican lawmakers agree that North Carolina is hurting itself by remaining among the 14 states that still have not expanded Medicaid, but their leadership is opposed.
Cooper is asking for a major investment in education and infrastructure by requesting that a $3.9 billion bond be put before voters in 2020. The borrowing would include $2 billion for K-12 public schools statewide, $800 million for local sewer projects and $500 million each for improvements at community colleges and the University of North Carolina system.
The need for such spending is clear. The governor’s office estimates that K-12 schools alone need $8 billion in new construction and renovations. Inadequate and deteriorating school buildings are only part of the problem. After eight years of Republican budget austerity, infrastructure throughout the state is like a home ridden by termites. Things look OK on the outside, but the rot — and the price of fixing it — are growing.
Nonetheless, Senate leader Phil Berger is balking at the bond. Instead, he wants to pay for school and infrastructure improvements with existing funds, an approach that would likely divert state funds from others school needs..
Cooper has new leverage this session since the Republicans lost their House and Senate supermajorities in November. Now they must deal with him or face a veto of their budget. But that leverage is unlikely to make much of a difference. Republicans aren’t really interested in consultation or compromise. They’re committed to having state government do only the bare minimum and letting long-term needs accumulate. Meeting them halfway and trying to negotiate won’t change that. Only an election can.