Friday, 31 May 2019 12:34

Senate passes state budget after spirited debate about hospital provision

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RALEIGH — The Senate passed its version of a $23.9 billion 2019-20 budget amid sharp rhetoric that broke along partisan and regional divides.


Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, condemned Republicans, accusing them of using the budget process to punish Eastern North Carolina over a governance dispute between Vidant Medical Center and the UNC System Board of Governors.

Davis authored one of 22 amendments introduced in the 4 1/2-hour session Thursday, May 30, before senators voted 29-18 to pass House Bill 966. Sens. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, and Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, broke ranks to vote with Republicans. A third vote is expected at 9 a.m. Friday to send the revised spending plan back to the House.

Davis was furious that Senate budget writers are contemplating terminating Vidant’s role as the teaching hospital for East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine and building a separate teaching hospital in Greenville instead.

A provision in the Senate budget would cut Medicaid reimbursements to the nonprofit Vidant Medical Center by $35 million if it loses its status as a public teaching hospital. Davis said Vidant estimates it will lose another $38 million next year when N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell’s State Health Plan reforms take effect.

“I am convinced that Eastern North Carolina is again under attack,” he said, accusing GOP Senate leadership of playing hardball. He said Senate leaders want to punish Vidant because the Pitt County Board of Commissioners voted to take away the UNC Board of Governors’ longstanding power to appoint nine members to Vidant’s 20-member board. UNC and Vidant have entered court-approved mediation to resolve the dispute.

“We must stop this madness right now,” Davis said. He called for petty politics to end. As the situation escalates employees are worried about their jobs, and people are growing more concerned about their future health care.

Despite his ardent pleas, Davis was blocked when he introduced an amendment to repeal the section of the budget lowering Vidant’s Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, used a parliamentary procedure to introduce a substitute amendment. Its passage killed Davis’ amendment.

Although House and Senate spending plans both total $23.9 billion for 2019-20, each spends the money differently. And those plans vary even more from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget.

Cooper’s office issued a press release echoing arguments his fellow Democrats made during Thursday’s floor debate.

“With their budget, Senate Republicans once again prioritize more corporate tax cuts at the expense of public education, clean water and providing affordable health care for hard working North Carolinians,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said. “These are unacceptable priorities and Governor Cooper will continue pushing for a budget that represents middle class families instead of special interests and corporate shareholders.”

Despite the flash points during debate, the session ended with a gentlemanly exchange between Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake.

Blue implored senators to take a more collaborative approach to budgeting, and consider the big picture rather than getting bogged down in partisan squabbles.

“Refusal to compromise is not good leadership, and it’s not good governing,” Blue said, urging members of both parties to engage in more frequent dialogue.

With significant differences between the House and Senate budgets, a conference committee could be mired in a lengthy impasse, he said. He invoked the likelihood that Cooper would veto the budget if it doesn’t contain his top priorities of Medicaid expansion and infrastructure funding, or address his opposition to GOP tax cuts.

Because Republicans no longer have veto-proof majorities, the budget gridlock could run into the next fiscal year that starts July 1. If that happens, government won’t shut down. It will continue to operate under this year’s funding levels.

Blue said a continued impasse would prevent 3.5% teacher pay raises and 2.5% state employee raises from taking effect. Money for Medicaid transformation and juvenile-justice reforms won’t be available. Schools won’t get money to cover enrollment gains.

Berger defended the budget proposal.

“If you’re getting everything you want except for three things, it seems to me that the folks that don’t compromise are really taking a position where they adamantly refuse to compromise,” Berger said.

“This budget is a huge compromise in terms of all of the funding priorities that are in here,” Berger said. Republicans included a number of items Blue and other Democrats brought to the GOP, he said. Republicans also pledged to work with Democrats on some of their funding requests which were introduced as amendments that were later withdrawn.

“It’s difficult to be disciplined,” Berger said, more so when there are budget surpluses.