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CJ reports: Budget battles just getting started

Dan Way reports for Carolina Journal:

If the state budget process seems polarized now, just wait. It could get even more quarrelsome as lawmakers contemplate how their votes might affect 2020 political prospects.

Call it the Three P’s — preening, posturing, and preparing for election campaigns — and some of that was on display during House committee and floor debate on the $23.9 billion budget proposal for 2019-20.

And it’s likely to intensify as the Senate considers its own spending plan, the two chambers reconcile differences … and then Gov. Roy Cooper likely vetoes the compromise package and sends everyone back to the negotiating table.

Political scientists say minority Democrats are trying to rile their base by highlighting hot-button issues. Angry voters may help the party take over one or both legislative chambers next year.

Analysts say the rancor isn’t unusual, because all 170 legislators face voters every two years. But they’re surprised Republicans haven’t invited more Democrats to the budget process after 2018, when the GOP lost its veto-proof supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Republicans will need Democratic support to defend against or override Cooper’s near-certain veto.

Cooper and Democrats also have an issue they think will give them an edge next year at the ballot box: Medicaid expansion. The governor has said legislation adding hundreds of thousands of N.C. residents to the Medicaid rolls will happen this year, either in the budget or through a separate bill.

But a budget change passed in 2016 removed leverage governors held during earlier standoffs: the threat of a state government shutdown. If the governor and legislature fail to agree when the fiscal year ends June 30, government agencies will stay open, operating at current spending levels. A stalemate could last for months.

N.C. State political science professor Andy Taylor said Democrats know they are unlikely to force significant changes in the budget at this stage. They believe most voters share their priorities. “But they really are doing it for a broader, and more political audience.”

Meredith College political science professor David McLennan agrees.

“I think they are trying to stake out as best they can some issues they can campaign on,” and any time they can cast Republicans as supporting a radical agenda they will, McLennan said.

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