North Carolina legislature reconvenes to address budget, vouchers as big elections approach

The North Carolina General Assembly begins its annual work session Wednesday with a little extra money to spend and limited pressing issues to address before key elections this fall and longtime state government leaders depart.

Following their landmark 2023 Session that expanded Medicaidrestricted abortionbroadened gun rights, swelled private-school vouchers and weakened the governor, Republicans leading the House and Senate are talking about the traditionally “short” Session to be just that — aiming to finish by early summer.

“We dealt with a lot of weighty issues,” House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, told reporters recently. “Are there still some things left to be done? Yes, we’re going to deal with those.”

With all 170 legislative seats up for reelection in November and Republicans who approved last year’s agenda holding the narrowest of veto-proof majorities, party leaders will be careful to advance measures that won’t sway public opinion against their candidates in key districts. Legislation forcing local sheriffs to assist with federal immigration enforcement and locating more funds for the private-school scholarships could qualify.

The legislature’s chief duty in even-numbered years is to adjust the second year of the two-year government operating budget that’s already enacted.

A consensus forecast by the legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration says the state will collect an additional $1.4 billion through mid-2025 than previously anticipated. This compares to the $30.9 billion currently set to be spent in the fiscal year starting July 1.

As much as $400 million could be needed to make Medicaid spending adjustments because of a lower federal government match and the higher use of services by enrollees, Rep. Donny Lambeth of Forsyth County, a House budget writer, said this week.

And Moore and Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton said separately that GOP colleagues are prepared to set aside more money for the Opportunity Scholarship Program so that more families in higher-income brackets can receive grants this fall to attend private or religious schools.

The current budget law did away with the program’s income caps to qualify, leading to a six-fold increase in applications this year.

But the state authority running the program said there isn’t enough to assist all qualifying applicants, and no aid would go to groups of applicants with the highest incomes. It wasn’t clear whether Republicans would seek to fully fund the scholarships for the coming year, which Moore said could require $300 million more.

Still, “I think there’s a high probability that we’re going to make sure the parents who want choice get choice for their children,” said Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican.

Cooper, who is term-limited from running for reelection, will soon present his last budget proposal. Cooper is hoping the legislature will listen to his calls to stop spending on the Opportunity Scholarship program that he’s opposed for years until public schools are “fully funded,” and for teachers to receive sizeable pay raises.

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