vetoes records State Legislative Building. Budget impasse.
The North Carolina General Assembly meets in the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, seen here in Feb. 2018. File / Frank Taylor / Wmforo

To get an idea of what to expect in the year ahead, look no further than 2018, a year in which major events reset long-running debates, a year that by so many measures was way off the charts.

Take rainfall, for instance. In most places, totals didn’t just break records, they reached almost unimaginable proportions. The City of Wilmington hit its average annual rainfall in July, two months before Hurricane Florence turned it into a temporary island.

Deviations from the norm weren’t limited to natural disasters or the natural world. North Carolina’s political universe saw several as well, including record turnout in a blue moon election, record amounts of spending in state legislative races, a dizzying pace of legal fights and a battle over ballots that’s upended at least three elections, including a congressional seat.

The costs and consequences of these events spills into 2019 and beyond. The challenge for the state isn’t just dealing with the aftermath of 2018, but recognizing that going forward what has happened could become more common.

These challenges in both disasters and democracy come as a new dynamic takes hold in state leadership.

One of the most significant changes as a result of the 2018 election was the end of supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, which puts Gov. Roy Cooper in a far stronger bargaining position.

Republicans still hold 65 seats in the 120-seat House and 29 of the 50 seats in the Senate, enough to pass laws, but not enough to guarantee an easy vote to override Cooper’s vetoes.

While that gets the governor a seat at the table, it does not mean compromise is a given.

The acrimony between the executive and legislative branch was at the fore during the past election cycle, during which Cooper threw his weight behind the movement to break the supermajorities, helping to raise money and interest in key legislative races.

After the election, accusations continued to fly back and forth between the governor and legislative leaders over a range of issues during a rare post-election session that led to vetoes before Christmas and override votes after.

Cooper, in recent remarks opening an initiative on climate change, said the new dynamic in Raleigh would result in an era of “forced consensus,” but as the next legislature prepares to assemble, the only consensus among lawmakers is to prepare for a long, protracted battle over budgets and policy.

Here’s a look at how some of them could play out.

Elections Board and 9th Congressional District

As 2018 wound to a close, a cascade of events threw even more uncertainty into what will happen as a result of the investigation of ballot fraud allegations in the 9th Congressional District election. GOP candidate Rev. Mark Harris holds a 905-vote margin of victory over Democratic contender Dan McCready, but the race remains uncertified pending an investigation.

An evidentiary hearing on the matter is scheduled for Jan. 11, but whether that will happen and how is now up in the air. So is the election board itself.

On Wednesday, Dec. 27, the state House and Senate voted to override Cooper’s veto of a bill reconstituting the state elections board, essentially restoring the structure in place prior to legislative changes Cooper challenged in 2017.

The legislation, H1029, also mandates a new primary election in the 9th District if the state board of elections, set under the new law to take office on Jan. 31, calls for a new election.

After the veto vote, the three-judge panel overseeing Cooper’s 2017 challenge issued a court order dissolving the current board at noon on Friday, Dec. 29.

Cooper asserted that he would appoint a temporary board in order to keep the investigation on track, but state GOP chairman Robin Hayes issued a statement that said he would not name any GOP candidates for the board and has asked potential candidates to refuse if appointed.

In a letter last Friday to Hayes, Cooper’s legal counsel said the governor would attempt to make the appointments anyway. A reply sent Sunday by an attorney for the state GOP threatened a lawsuit if the governor does make the appointments.

Meanwhile, Harris and party officials have insisted that the election be certified and he be allowed to take his seat when the new Congress is sworn in on Thursday, Jan. 3.

Incoming congressional Democrats in the new House leadership have said flatly that won’t happen. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told the Washington Post last week that “given the well-documented election fraud” that happened in the election, Democrats will refuse to seat Harris.

Odds appears to be increasing that either the state board, once back in place, or the U.S. House itself will call for a new election, but what happens next is difficult to guess.

In a statement issued late Friday, state board of election officials said the staff will continue to work on the investigation while the issues with the board itself are being resolved.

For now, there’s been no delay in the date of the evidentiary hearing.

Hurricane recovery

Hurricane Florence was by far the state’s worst natural disaster with damage from the storm now estimated to exceed the combined impact of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the state’s two previous worst disasters.

The legislature has approved four rounds of relief funding, most of it to cover the state match for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants along with a newly minted $230 million state relief fund set up for farmers.

Those bills passed quickly and unanimously as legislators opted to stick to areas with broad agreement. In doing so, they left on the table dozens of proposals in controversy that will have to be worked out in 2019, either in the next rounds of relief funding or through the state budget process.

In a cost outline on hurricane response that Cooper issued in November, the administration is seeking significant funds for another buyout of swine operations in the floodplain, money to rebuild and relocate flood-prone sewage treatment facilities, funds for creating housing options to facilitate buyouts and a major increase in funding and greater authority for the Department of Environmental Quality to doing water quality monitoring and enforcement.

When first proposed, all met stiff headwinds in the legislature. With the governor’s hand strengthened due to the election results, he could see advances in some or all of those priorities.

Still, a significant investment in any of them would require a major change in direction for a legislature that in recent years has been notoriously skeptical about climate change and more intent on dialing back DEQ funding and enforcement than increasing them.

There has been some consensus, apparently voluntary, on how to move forward. Legislators backed an administration request to combine relief and rebuilding programs still running for Hurricane Matthew with Hurricane Florence, an indication that many recognize the state can no longer limit response on a storm-by-storm basis.

The legislature also agreed to a new state Office of Resilience and Recovery and an initial round of funding for it. The office, housed in the Department of Public Safety, is designed to act as a clearinghouse for relief efforts and rebuilding and resilience initiatives to reduce impacts from future storms.

Medicaid expansion

One of the first items brought up as a consequence of the election was that it could pave the way for the state to consider, finally, an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move the legislature has sought to stifle, since even before the ACA took effect.

North Carolina is one of 14 states that have not opted for expansion. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that about 339,000 residents would be eligible if they were to do so.

Over the past two years, a proposal dubbed Carolina Care has been pushed by a coalition of House Republicans. The bill, which is not a straightforward expansion but included work requirements and other adjustments, got no traction in the House and an even colder reception from Senate leaders, who led the original fight against both expansion and the ACA in general.

Health care’s emergence as a potent weapon for Democratic candidates has led some states to reconsider decisions not to expand Medicaid. Shifts in other states would increase pressure on recalcitrant leaders in the General Assembly to drop their opposition as well.

Cooper is expected to push for expansion in his version of the state budget and the House GOP backers of Carolina Care, who have said their bill would pass if it ever gets to the floor, are planning to bring it up during budget talks as well.

Ultimately, what happens on Medicaid expansion in North Carolina will be affected by events beyond its borders.

As it has been since the ACA passed, the wild card in 2019 is what happens at the federal level, both in the courts and in congress. Expansion opponents have used uncertainty over the ACA’s future to dismiss past efforts. Given the current state of affairs in the nation’s capital, for now that remains a powerful argument.

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Wmforo. To contact the Wmforo newsroom, email [email protected].

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