With the passing of the state budget on Friday — finally! — North Carolina becomes the 40th state to pass Medicaid expansion, more than 13 years after the Affordable Care Act allowed for this boon to the uninsured.

At issue: It’s folded into a budget bill loaded with toxic items that would never have passed through the NC Legislature on their own merit, including a passage that allows legislators to remove documents from the public record, including drafts for redistricting maps, just in time for new districts to be redrawn for the 2024 election. It also strips the governor’s control of the State Board of Elections, ceding it to the legislature along with control of local elections boards — something that voters rejected in 2018. Among other bits of red meat for the conservative base is one prime cut: universal school choice funded by taxpayers and stripped from the public-schools budget. We already do this. In 2022-23, $176.5 million was available for the Opportunity Scholarship program; about 25,500 students benefited from it — 61 percent of them white and 71 percent of whom attended religious schools. The new budget pledges to up this number to $520.5 million over the next 10 years and waive any income requirements for acceptance.

It means that any family in NC, regardless of how much they make, can apply to have all or part of their child’s private-school tuition paid by taxpayers.

There’s some nuance here. The Opportunity Scholarship program was initially pitched as a benefit to low-income families who live in underperforming school districts. No doubt, this function still exists. But by lifting the income cap, the program becomes something else entirely: the chance at reduced or free tuition to families who have already been paying full freight for their students, and a government subsidy for private schools, most of which have a religious fundament, bringing church and state even closer together in NC.

With Medicaid expansion, which should bring healthcare to 600,000 North Carolinians, and small raises for teachers and state workers, it becomes a Faustian bargain to which the governor will not even affix his name. Instead, Cooper will sit idly while the bill becomes law without his signature.

No one, not even the Republicans, are pretending this is anything more than a power grab with a few benefits for poor people held hostage.

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