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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 Medicaid, restricted abortion, broadened 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 — with a goal to finish by early summer.

NORTH CAROLINA GOV. COOPER VETOES 2 MORE BILLS, BUT BUDGET STILL ON TRACK TO BECOME LAW TUESDAY

“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.

Session-Preview

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore walks on the floor, May 16, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C. The North Carolina General Assembly begins its annual work session on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, with a little extra money to spend and limited pressing issues to address before key elections this fall and longtime state government leaders depart.  (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

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 for their K-12 children 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, also will present his last budget proposal Wednesday. Cooper is hoping GOP legislators 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.

“We need to invest in public schools,” Cooper told reporters recently. “We know that to sustain the workforce of the future for all these jobs we’re attracting, we’ve got to make sure that our public schools are strong.”

On immigration, Newton said he suspects the Senate would take up a bill approved by the House last year that would force sheriffs to help federal agents interested in picking up jail inmates they believe are in the country illegally. Cooper successfully vetoed similar measures in 2019 and 2022, but that’s when GOP legislators lacked supermajorities.

State budget approval was nearly derailed last year when Senate Republicans sought to insert language that would have permitted construction of four more casinos in the state and the sanctioning and regulating video gambling machines statewide. But Republicans from both chambers have suggested discussions about sanctioning the gambling machines could resurface.

General Assembly staff estimated last year that revenue from the machines could generate over $400 million annually by later this decade. That could help make up for revenue losses now projected as approved individual and corporate income tax rates further decline. Republicans have downplayed talk of long-term shortfalls as hasty.

Democratic legislators seeking to halt what they consider bad GOP bills will face the same challenges that began last April when Rep. Tricia Cotham changed her registration to the Republican Party. Her switch secured the veto-proof majority in both chambers. All of Cooper’s vetoes last year were overridden.

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“The numbers are what they are,” said House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat. “I can still count and I know that the Republican caucus is going to vote 100% together.”

This short session also marks the last one for Moore, who is likely on his way to Congress in 2025 after a record five two-year terms leading the chamber. He comfortably won his primary election for the Republican-leaning 14th Congressional District.

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