This story was originally published by NC Newsline, story by Lynn Bonner

The Republicans’ Frankenstein experiment that sutured promised Medicaid expansion in North Carolina to expanded legal gambling has failed.

Republican legislative leaders announced Tuesday night that they are ending their attempts to authorize more casinos in the state — at least for this year — and that the $30 billion budget will move forward with Medicaid expansion and without casinos. 

Republicans said they intend to hold budget votes this week. 

The Senate will hold budget votes Thursday and Friday, Senate leader Phil Berger said. 

The last few days of budget negotiations have been full of twists, including a leaked draft budget and a separate proposal that tied the creation of four casinos and legalization of up to 50,000 video gaming machines across the state to the authorization for Medicaid expansion. Republicans approved Medicaid expansion in March, but made it contingent on the budget passing.

The state budget is nearly three months late. The delay has meant not only that teachers and state employees have not seen pay raises, but that the promise of health insurance coverage for about 600,000 people has stalled. 

Standardized testing, more power for conservative courts

The draft budget includes the expanded private school voucher program Republicans have been talking about for months. Included with the voucher expansion is a provision requiring standardized tests for students who use vouchers. The results will be reported to the state, but will not be public record. Private schools who have more than 25 students in any grade would have to report aggregate test results for grades three, eight, and 11 to the state authority that administers the voucher program. 

Democrats earlier this year argued for requiring reportable test results, but Republicans claimed it would not be possible. 

The draft budget includes changes to the judiciary that have appeared in previous House or Senate budget proposals. 

The retirement age for appellate court judges and justices is increased from 72 years to 76 years. The change would allow Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby to serve his full term. 

The budget gives legislative leaders the ability to appoint 10 special Superior Court judges to eight-year terms. It has been the job of governors to nominate special Superior Court judges. 

A provision would change the makeup of the Judicial Standards Commission, the 14-member organization that investigates complaints about judges. 

The budget takes away the State Bar’s four appointments and replaces them with four judges appointed by legislative leaders. The change comes as Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, a Democrat, is being investigated by the commission for talking about bias in the courts. Earls, one of two Democrats on the court and the only Black woman, sued in federal court to stop the investigation, saying it violates her First Amendment rights, NC Newsline has reported. 

The draft budget includes additional expanded powers for the legislature. The Community College System president would be subject to General Assembly confirmation. The legislature would elect 18 of the 22 Community College state board members, gutting the governor’s appointments. Currently, the governor appoints 10 members and the legislature appoints eight. 

Vaccine mandates, shopping carts and reviving rural hospitals

State and local governments, schools, public universities and private universities that receive state funds would not be able to require COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of work or school attendance. These provisions have been debated as a bill separate from the budget. 

Another provision prevents fees on bags and other food and beverage containers and prohibits imposing fees on “failure to take possession of a shopping cart.” The Fayetteville City Council had been talking about ways to control stray shopping carts that the city has been spending money to corral, according to CBS17.

One provision creates a pathway to reopen Martin General Hospital as a federally designated rural emergency hospital. The hospital closed in early August as the company who operated it said it was filing for bankruptcy. Rep. Shelly Willingham, a Democrat whose district includes Martin County, said Tuesday that the designation would allow for an infusion of federal money that could allow the hospital to reopen. 

The provision isn’t only for Martin County, but for any rural hospital that qualifies, he said. 

“It’s a mechanism for rural hospitals to survive,” he said. “This will help a great deal.”

‘Politics at its worst’: The big bet that didn’t pay off

Republican legislators spent weeks trying to shoehorn into the budget a proposal to legalize video poker and allow four additional casinos in the state, but failed to get enough of their own members to go along. Berger said emotions had taken over the debate. 

“I learned that in an environment like that you’re not going to make any progress,” he told reporters Tuesday night. 

However, legislators who wanted the casino plan never publicly debated its merits. Republicans talked mostly to themselves and behind closed doors. The most complete information available to the public was through bills leaked to media outlets. 

As rumors of the planned casinos spread, opposition grew. 

In Rockingham County, where Berger lives and where one of the casinos would have gone, residents organized to fight it. Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, who is running for lieutenant governor, spoke out against a casino. 

Robbie B. Davis, chairman of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, said in an interview last week that most of the members of his board found out from a news report that the county was a chosen site for one of the four casinos.

Davis said he learned some details regarding casino development about eight to 10 months ago, when he was invited to an economic development meeting. Davis said he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement to get in, and wasn’t able to tell people what he learned. He checked back monthly with the organizers to see if he could share the information with the other commissioners. 

“They said they weren’t ready to do that,” Davis said.  “I had to wait for it to become public before the board could talk about it.”

After learning of the plan, Nash commissioners passed a resolution asking that if the casino was targeted for Nash, that the county be able to hold a referendum so voters could have a say. 

Davis disagreed with the way Republicans tried to get more casinos using the budget and without public discussion. 

“Politics at its worst,” he called it.  

Davis was opposed to having a casino in Nash and, after talking to county residents over the last weeks, figured about 80 percent of residents didn’t want it. 

Casinos are not true economic development, he said. 

“To be economic development,  you must produce a product,” he said. “You must distribute a product.” A casino only takes in a product in the form of people’s money, Davis said. “It’s a deterrent to true economic development.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: [email protected]. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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