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Stalemate still on as N Carolina legislature ends this year

RALEIGH, NC – Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his Republican rivals fought to a draw as the North Carolina legislature adjourned its longest annual session in nearly 20 years this month, still with no conventional state budget in place and many favored GOP items blocked.

It may take the November 2020 elections to break the logjam in the closely divided, fast-growing state, which while leaning Republican this decade has shown some recent signs of toggling to the left.

“If you can’t change the rules of the game, then you need to change the players,” state Senate Minority Whip Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat, said in an interview, adding the budget stalemate “absolutely means it will be a political issue going into a political year.”

Democratic gains in 2018 narrowed GOP seat advantages and increased Cooper’s leverage with his veto stamp. That’s in contrast to the first half of his term, when GOP veto-proof majorities left Cooper largely unable to halt Republican actions, except through litigation.

“We vetoed 14 pieces of legislation, and none of them have been overridden,” Cooper told reporters last week. “We've been able to stop some bad legislation.”

But Republicans contend Cooper, who is up for reelection next year along with all 170 legislative seats, has miscalculated by obstructing the budget’s passage, vetoing a “born-alive” abortion prohibition and mandate upon sheriffs to help federal immigration agents.

“He might have won a victory, but did he win the political war?” asked GOP Rep. Jason Saine, a top House budget-writer, adding the governor now must own his veto record.

Cooper’s most consequential veto this year came in June, when he blocked the two-year state budget approved by Republicans. He was unhappy the bill lacked what he considered robust teacher raises and Medicaid expansion to hundreds of thousands of people through the 2010 federal health care law.

Republicans still skeptical of more federal intrusion into health care wouldn’t go for Medicaid expansion. The annual session, which traditionally ends in mid-July, went on another four months. Republicans tried instead to persuade enough Democrats to agree to the override, rather than sit around a negotiating table.

“The governor will not negotiate, except on the condition that any final product have Medicaid expansion,” Senate leader Phil Berger said as the session closed Nov. 15. “That is not something that the votes exist for.”

Cooper said there was no “Medicaid-or-nothing” ultimatum. Distrust between the parties went off the charts Sept. 11 when House Republicans took advantage of a half-empty chamber to quickly approve the budget veto override. Cooper accused Republicans of pulling “their most deceptive stunt yet.” GOP House Speaker Tim Moore said the chamber’s rules were followed.

The move appeared to bolster Democrats in the Senate, which still had to vote to complete the override. Republicans only needed one of the 21 Senate Democrats to join them to succeed, but weeks went by and no vote was taken. Senate Republicans say they may try again when they return to work in mid-January, after candidate filing ends and Democrats without primary challengers could be wooed.

A state government shutdown wasn’t possible when the fiscal year began July 1 because laws already on the books prevented one. Lawmakers also decided to pass portions of their proposed budget in several pieces of legislation — such as for state employees and law enforcement raises — to allay criticism. Cooper signed nearly all of these “mini-budgets” into law.

The budget stalemate has some consequences. A yearslong effort to shift the state’s Medicaid program to managed has been suspended indefinitely. And the lack of a broad teacher pay agreement gives political ammunition to the state’s largest teacher lobbying group, aligned with Cooper. Republicans counter that Cooper’s the one who has vetoed budget bills containing teacher raises three years in a row.

Saine argued the GOP still holds political advantage entering next year because of a strong state economy and jobs announcements he attributes to Republican tax cuts and regulatory legislation. But Cooper also should benefit from the positive economy. Recent redistricting court rulings favoring Democrats also should make more districts competitive.

“I don't see any clear winners or losers from the 2019 legislative session,” Wake Forest University political science professor John Dinan said. “Both sides appear prepared to take their case to voters in the 2020 elections.”