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Budget stalemate drags on

Waynesville Rep. Joe Sam Queen speaks at a town hall meeting in Waynesville on Saturday, July 20. Cory Vaillancourt photo Waynesville Rep. Joe Sam Queen speaks at a town hall meeting in Waynesville on Saturday, July 20. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Although Republicans still control both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly, Democratic victories in the 2018 legislative election stripped Republicans of their power to override the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper, D-Rocky Mount. That, said Waynesville Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen, has changed the political climate in Raleigh. 

“It’s been much more mellow,” said Queen. “Normally, they would just thumb their nose at you and stomp you in the ground, but we really are stopping some stupid stuff.”

Queen still counts the Republican conference budget as one of those things, calling it “capricious and half-baked in every way.” 

Cooper vetoed it earlier this summer because it didn’t include provisions for Medicaid expansion, and Democrats like Queen have vowed not to defect and join Republicans in overriding Cooper’s budget veto.

“It wasn’t worth a damn — it left 500,000 folks without healthcare. It didn’t give teachers and state employees the raises they deserve, and we’re going to veto it, because we’re not going to go along with that,” he said. “I’m not willing to throw 500,000 North Carolina citizens under the bus, now that we have worked hard to give them the veto to make that case. We’re going to make our case.”

Queen’s fellow WNC legislators Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, and Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, didn’t respond to emails from The Smoky Mountain News seeking comment on the issue, but Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, released a statement on Facebook July 22 that blames Cooper’s veto for holding up $74 million in funding for the counties in his district. 

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“It’s not right to block all this funding just because of one policy disagreement,” Davis said. “The Governor is holding Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties’ funding hostage over Medicaid expansion, and he refuses to drop his ultimatum so negotiations on the budget can move forward.”

Democrats have presented a “compromise” budget that Republicans don’t seem to eager to entertain. 

According to data produced by Queen during a town hall in Waynesville the morning of July 20, it includes a 5 percent raise for all state employees, versus a Republican 5 percent proposal for only 27 percent of employees; a 5 percent increase for non-certified school personnel versus a Republican offer of 2 percent; a 5 percent increase for UNC-system employees versus a Republican 1 percent offer, a 4 percent raise for community college employees versus a 2 percent Republican offer; and a 2 percent cost of living increase for state retirees, versus a 1 percent Republican offer. 

It also includes Medicaid expansion, and a proposal to put a $3.5 billion bond issue before voters that if approved would greatly boost capital spending for schools. 

Republicans have proposed an alternative to the Invest N.C. Bond, called the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, or SCIF, that is in actuality discretionary spending equivalent to 4 percent of the budget that can be doled out at will by Republican leadership. 

“This is a far better deal in black-and-white, but you can’t give the big corporations their extra tax break, and you can’t scam 4 percent off the budget and make these numbers work,” Queen said. “It’s exactly the same amount of money in any of these budgets. All these budgets are balanced.”

Cooper’s compromise cuts that SCIF to 1 percent of the budget, with the remaining 3 percent going towards payments on the Invest N.C. Bond. 

With little compromise in sight, the stalemate could drag on indefinitely, and could end up making it easy for Republicans to paint Democrats as obstructionists.

“We are in a political culture,” Queen said. “They will spin that the way they will, but they won’t win that argument.”

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