Following two weeks of uncertainty on what would happen with the state budget and the remainder of session, legislative leadership reached a compromise and adopted a budget for the upcoming fiscal biennium. The $60 billion spending package over the next two years raises pay for state employees and teachers, expands Medicaid, cuts taxes, expands eligibility for the state's private school vouchers program, and invests billions of dollars in state and local infrastructure projects.
Although the General Assembly did not formally adjourn, legislators took up several high-profile bills that are normally adopted at the conclusion of session. One of those, the annual comprehensive regulatory reform bill, HB 600: Regulatory Reform Act of 2023, was adopted by the House during a midnight session Friday morning and was later adopted by the Senate. That bill includes changes to the state’s water protection statutes, food inspection, construction, and state procurement laws.
Additionally, both chambers adopted SB 749: No Partisan Advantage in Elections, which, if enacted, will shift power to appoint members of the state and county boards of elections away from the Governor and to the legislature. Currently, the state and county boards are composed of a majority of Democrats, since that is the party of the Governor. The bill would create an even makeup of both Democrats and Republicans and creates a process by which, if there are tie votes that cannot be broken within the boards, those decisions get punted to the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Neither chamber will convene for votes over the next two weeks. Instead, legislators who oversee redistricting have three public sessions scheduled throughout the state to collect feedback on redistricting. Because of recent court decisions, the legislature will redraw both legislative and congressional districts over the next several weeks.
Nearly three months into the new fiscal year, legislators officially adopted a state budget that spends $60 billion over the upcoming biennium this week. After weeks of negotiating about the inclusion of legislation that would legalize commercial casinos and other forms of gambling, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) announced in a rare joint press conference Tuesday evening that gambling policies would be left out of the budget. Both chambers proceeded to vote on the bill, HB 259: 2023 Appropriation Act, Thursday and Friday morning, sending it to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper for consideration.
After passing an initial 69-40 House vote Thursday morning and an initial 28-19 Senate vote Thursday afternoon, House lawmakers returned for a midnight voting session early Friday morning to provide the budget bill with a final 70-40 vote. Senate lawmakers also gave final approval to the budget Friday morning, 26-17, sending to Governor Cooper's desk for his consideration. The Governor has three options when it comes to action on the budget proposal: sign it, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. Republicans, with a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, have the capability to override a gubernatorial veto.
Shortly after the Senate took the final vote on the budget bill, Governor Cooper issued a statement saying that he would allow the bill to become law without his signature.
The budget is a win for organizations and legislators on both sides of the political aisle. The bill will formally expand Medicaid, which has been a top priority of Democrats and many Republicans for several years. The budget also cuts taxes and expands the state’s voucher program for private school students, which have been top priorities of Republicans this session.
The budget addresses state infrastructure, healthcare, education, transportation, manufacturing, and tourism, and commits significant resources to address how the state takes care of those with mental health needs.
Most state employees and teachers are set to receive raises, with teachers getting an average 7% raise over two years. Teacher raises vary based on experience, ranging from 3.6% to 10.8%. The budget also expands the state’s private school vouchers program, called the Opportunity Scholarship Program, to all families in the state regardless of income, in a tiered approach.
Perhaps most impactful, the budget formally expands Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. The state will take advantage of $1.6 billion in federal funds that, according to Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), will be used for various health initiatives, including the construction of a children's hospital, and a partnership between ECU Health and UNC Health to build new health clinics. Additionally, $50 million in one-time money will go to providers of health care services in rural and under-served areas, and $80 million will go to support families caring for children with behavioral health and/or other special needs.
Although there were several policy victories for Democrats in the budget, all but five Democrats in the General Assembly voted against the budget bill, rebuking the process used to pass it. House Minority Leader Representative Robert Reives (D-Chatham) said on the House floor that with this budget, the state legislature will become “the most powerful legislature in the country. We have abilities and rights now that are controlled by the 170 of us, that have never been contemplated by the makers of the Constitution.”
One of the House’s top appropriations leaders, Representative Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth), broached on those concerns on the floor during the House’s midnight session Friday morning. “As you think about the budget, think about its impact on our state. Are there challenges still? Well, absolutely, but working together, we can meet those challenges,” said Lambeth.
After the bill passed early Friday morning, Speaker Moore issued a statement celebrating the legislation, saying, “I could not be prouder of the budget approved by the House today, and I am encouraged by the bipartisan support it received from my friends on the other side of the aisle. Thanks to the fiscally responsible work of this General Assembly on behalf of the people of North Carolina, we have made significant investments where they are needed most.”
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, September 25
4:00PM: Joint Redistricting Committee (Elizabeth City)
Tuesday, September 26
4:00PM: Joint Redistricting Committee (Hickory)
Wednesday, September 27
4:00PM: Joint Redistricting Committee (Raleigh)