What a difference a pandemic makes. Governor Roy Cooper dropped his budget this week and, while Republicans disagreed with much of it, nobody used terms like “DOA” to describe it like they have in the past. Both sides struck a conciliatory tone, sounding confident they could pass a budget. If they do, it will be the first one since 2017. 

Cooper’s budget looks like a Democratic budget. He wants to expand Medicaid, offer tax relief to the working poor, and give teachers and state employees healthy raises. When Republicans in the Senate release their budget, it will certainly have different priorities. They want an across the board reduction in the tax rate from 5.25% to 4.99% and will almost certainly oppose Medicaid expansion, or at least they will oppose calling it that. They will argue about the amount of money to pay the people who worked to get our state through a global pandemic. 

Both sides seem ready to deal. They left the legislature without a budget in 2019, but 2021 is different. People are clearly ready to get past the rancor and bluster that dominated the politics in the Age of Trump. They want government to function again. They are cheering on Biden’s coronavirus relief package and breathing a sigh of relief after years of Trump’s daily tweets. Just a few weeks ago, the Cooper and the legislature hammered out a compromise to get schools open, in part, because the public wanted action. 

In 2022, during the midterm elections, neither side wants to be blamed for government failing to do its job, and in state government, passing a budget is a core responsibility. The language is considerably different now than two years ago. Back then, Cooper said that Medicaid expansion was necessary for a budget to pass. Phil Berger made clear that wouldn’t happen on his watch, even if a few House Republicans seemed open to the proposition. Cooper now says no one issue should stop the budget. Democratic Rep. Gale Adcock said, “There’s always room for compromise, this is politics.” 

That’s a far cry from the rancor of a few years ago. Still, Cooper says he will veto a budget that’s “not right for North Carolina” and he’s got the number to sustain it. Look for wheeling and dealing instead of chest thumping this year. Both sides have a vested interest in showing they can govern. The midterm is closer than you think.

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