Pardon Our Dust
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Budget season has officially begun at the North Carolina General Assembly as each of the joint appropriations subcommittees, which include members of both House and Senate chambers, met to hear from agency officials and fiscal research staff this week. The subcommittees play a critical role in helping lawmakers, especially those newly elected, understand the budget process and the needs of state government agencies. Legislative budget leaders have said they expect a budget to be passed by June of this year. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper is expected to release his proposed budget next month. Over the last few legislative sessions budgets were either not adopted or adopted late in the year, partly due to lengthy negotiations with the Governor. This year, negotiations may not last as long due to Republicans winning a supermajority in the Senate last November and coming within one vote in the House, likely giving both chambers enough votes to override a potential gubernatorial veto.
North Carolina is one of 11 states that has not adopted Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, but a House bill that moved quickly through the chamber this week could change that. The House passed HB 76: Access to Healthcare Options Thursday morning by a bipartisan vote of 96 to 23. HB 76 made its way through the House chamber within three days – being heard in the Health, Finance, and Rules committees this week.
The bill would extend Medicaid coverage to an estimated 600,000 North Carolinians who are not currently eligible for Medicaid and have a household income equal to or less than 133% of the federal poverty level. It is estimated that 80% of those who will receive coverage under the program are individuals who have a low-wage job that does not provide health insurance.
Legislators adopted three amendments to the bill on Wednesday. One amendment sponsored by Representative Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort), who is one of the House’s most conservative members, states that if the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services authorizes work requirements for receiving Medicaid, North Carolina will create a work requirement program. Previous work requirement provisions in other states have been struck down by federal courts. Another amendment, introduced by Representative Jeffrey McNeely (R-Iredell), provides $50 million in non-recurring funds to counties to cover the administrative costs of determining Medicaid eligibility and for inmate medical costs. Each county will receive at least $100,000.
The vote represents a change from previous legislative sessions when Republicans generally opposed Medicaid expansion. But as rural hospitals have struggled to stay open without the extra funding, and as the program has survived legal challenges in federal court, many Republicans have changed their stance on the issue.
If expansion becomes law in North Carolina the federal government would pay for 90% of the costs of enrolling new Medicaid recipients, with hospitals and insurance companies covering the rest through pass-through taxes. A portion of the new enrollees would be paid for from a new source of federal funding, the Healthcare Access and Stabilization Program (HASP), which is provided to states who underwent managed care transformation, as North Carolina did two years ago.
Bill sponsor, and House Health Committee chair, Representative Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) spoke on the House floor about the benefits expansion will bring to rural communities. “It is estimated that 40% of rural North Carolinians are uninsured,” said Lambeth, “when paired with HASP, expansion could bring one billion dollars to 43 rural county hospitals over the next few years.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, where its future is uncertain at best. Last year, the Senate passed Medicaid expansion in a bill that also included measures to overhaul the state’s Certificate of Need laws limiting hospital competition and provisions to loosen restrictions on supervision requirements for advanced practice nurses. Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) has repeatedly said that any bill expanding Medicaid will have to include other healthcare regulatory reforms as well in order to receive a vote in the Senate.
The Republican-controlled legislature has not successfully overridden one of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s since 2018, when they last held a supermajority in each chamber. Since then, the legislature has attempted, unsuccessfully, to override 12 of the Governor’s 47 vetoes. However, after retaking a supermajority in the Senate and coming within one seat in the House after the 2022 elections, Republicans are more optimistic they will be able to override vetoes on their top priorities. This week, House Republicans started to lay the groundwork for overcoming obstacles with their near supermajority.
During a debate on the House floor over the chamber’s proposed permanent rules, which are proposed by the Republican majority and dictate how the body functions and schedules legislation, Representative Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), who sponsored the rules package, said plainly that the House will at least attempt to “override every veto by the Governor.”
The permanent rules package changes the way veto overrides are scheduled in the House. Previously, 48-hours notice had to be given to all members before a vote on a veto override. The new rule allows an override on 1) the day the House receives it from the Senate, 2) the day the House receives it from the Governor, or 3) when it’s on the printed calendar distributed online and throughout the General Assembly. This provision caused disagreement with House Democrats, although five Democrats ultimately voted in favor of the rules package. Representative Deb Butler (D-New Hanover), who went viral for her vocal opposition on the House floor in 2019 when Republicans overrode the Governor’s veto of the budget, spoke in opposition to the new rules package, calling them a “gotcha style of politics.” In response, Representative Hall pointed out that when Democrats controlled the House there was no rule at all on scheduling overrides.
It appears that the legislature will reform some of the state’s gun laws during this year’s session. Both the House and Senate have introduced pieces of legislation that would have the same effect, albeit in a different form. The House has introduced and begun to advance three bills. HB 49: Protect Religious Meeting Places would authorize anyone with a valid concealed carry permit to carry a handgun in a church that has a school on its grounds. The bill would not allow a firearm during school hours and would not apply to public schools or universities. Currently, guns are not allowed to be carried in any school. Some church leaders who are affected by the current law argue their members should be allowed to carry firearms for protection during worship serves. Representative Terry Brown (D-Mecklenburg) spoke in opposition on the House floor this week, arguing that the bill would have unintended consequences if a parishioner inadvertently left their gun behind for a school child to fund. The bill passed 77 to 43, with all Republicans and six Democrats voting in favor.
HB 36: Firearms Training/Probation & Parole Officers also passed the House floor this week by a near unanimous vote with only three Democrats voting against it. The bill would add current probation or parole officers to the list of people that may obtain a permit without taking the mandatory training and safety course. Currently, only retired probation and parole officers are allowed to obtain a permit without training. Only officers authorized to carry a firearm in their standard course of duty would be affected by the bill.
HB 72: Firearm Safe Storage Awareness Initiative passed the House Judiciary 2 Committee this week. The bill would direct the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to launch a two-year firearm safety program to educate the public on safe storage of firearms and to facilitate the distribution of gun locks. DPS would create a website and advocacy campaigns for the public to know how to obtain free gun locks.
House Bill 50: Pistol Purchase Permit Repeal passed the House Judiciary 3 and Rules committees this week and is scheduled for a floor vote next week. Unless an individual has a concealed carry permit, current law requires an individual to receive a permit from their sheriff before purchasing a pistol. This bill would repeal that requirement. Members of the Judiciary 3 committee voted for a version of the bill that included a provision that created a specific charge for misdemeanor domestic violence. Currently in North Carolina, there is no specific domestic violence charge, and individuals who commit an offense against a spouse or someone living in the same home are charged with other misdemeanors. However, the bill presented to the House Rules Committee struck this provision. Bill sponsor Representative Allen Chesser (R-Nash) said the reason for the change was because they were looking to run a separate bill creating the domestic violence charge. The bill was opposed by Democrats in both committees, who argued that most sheriffs currently reject pistol purchase permits only if they perceive an individual to be a threat to themselves or others.
The Senate seems to mostly agree with the House’s gun reform priorities, although they are going a route of passing a comprehensive, omnibus gun reform bill. SB 41: Guarantee 2nd Amend Freedom and Protections passed the full Senate this week along a party line vote with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition. The bill mirrors several of the House’s ideas, including the authorization of firearms in churches with educational facilities, the repeal of the pistol purchase requirement, and the firearm safe storage initiative. The bill also has a section that would allow individuals who are not sworn officers to carry a firearm into a law enforcement agency, so long as they have been designated by the chief of the law enforcement agency to do so. The Senate rejected amendments by Democrats that would have created universal background checks for firearm purchases and establish red flag laws.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, February 20
4:00 PM House: Session
4:00 PM Senate: Session
Tuesday, February 21
10:00 AM House: Local Government
12:00 PM Senate: State and Local Government
1:00 PM House: Education K-12
2:00 PM House: Energy and Public Utilities
2:00 PM House: Military and Veterans Affairs
Wednesday, February 22
8:30 AM Joint House & Senate: Appropriations, General Government
8:30 AM Joint House & Senate: Appropriations, Education
11:00 AM House: Regulatory Reform
1:00 PM House: Disaster Recovery and Homeland Security
Thursday, February 23
8:30 AM Joint House & Senate: Appropriations, Education