STATE BUDGET VOTE ON HOLD

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature converged Tuesday in a stalemate over an already-delayed budget plan because the House and Senate disagree on including provisions that would expand state-sanctioned gambling.

The budget, a two-year financial plan with spending of about $30 billion annually, is more than two months overdue, which delays Medicaid expansion, hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects, raises for teachers and state employees, and other financial priorities. The distribution of billions of dollars in reserve for special programs and initiatives was a topic of ongoing negotiations between House and Senate Republicans throughout the summer.

Many lawmakers, including Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), have pushed for a final budget plan to include the approval of additional casinos and the legalization of video gambling machines statewide, citing the potential economic benefits for areas of North Carolina where population and economic growth have lagged behind the state's urban and suburban hotspots. The passage of the remaining budget provisions is now in jeopardy.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) declared on Tuesday that his chamber lacked the 61 votes required to pass the budget with expanded gambling options and legalized video lottery terminals. According to Moore, there are 30 Republicans opposed to a budget that includes increased gambling and 42 Republicans in favor of it. He proposed moving forward without it.

According to Berger, that majority indicates that the provision should be included in the budget in accordance with a deal with Moore. Berger claimed that the House leadership had violated an agreement to include any measure that received support from a majority of Republicans. Instead, he demanded that the House leadership "live up to its commitments," framing the disagreement as a fundamental restructuring of the relationship between the chambers.

Legislators had expressed optimism that final budget votes would be taken this week. Instead, late on Tuesday, Moore halted all formal House business until the following week, when he indicated that his chamber might use a procedural move to hold its own budget votes in an effort to exert pressure on the Senate.

Leading Republican lawmakers met throughout the day on Wednesday to continue discussions. Nobody anticipated that those discussions would result in a final budget by day's end, but after Tuesday's heated exchanges between the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House, tempers had cooled.

On Wednesday, Moore and Berger had several meetings scheduled. According to Moore, the immediate strategy was to "lower the temperature" and have "a full, candid discussion about what the various options are right now."

It is unknown what will occur next in the GOP impasse. Past budget stalemates have resulted in "mini-budgets," a procedure in which lawmakers pass significant and well-liked portions of the budget as separate measures. Berger, however, rejected using that strategy to pass measures like Medicaid expansion and pay raises for state employees this year.

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VOTING RECORDS BILL DELAYED IN COMMITTEE

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly want to make it simpler for the public to access private voting records. Elections officials would have to provide cast vote records (CVRs) and completed ballots in response to public records requests under a bill being heard this week by the House Committee on Elections and Campaign Finance Reform. House Bill 770 backers contend that it will increase election administration transparency.

These voting records are considered confidential under current state law and are only accessible with a court order. The existing law states, "No person other than elections officials performing their duties may have access to voted ballots or paper or electronic records of individual voted ballots except by court order or order of the appropriate board of elections as part of the resolution of an election protest or investigation of an alleged election irregularity or violation."

The proposed legislation requires election officials to redact any information that could be used to identify a specific voter before disclosing such documents. However, according to some election administrators, because CVRs are chronological records of how a person voted, the data could be used to extrapolate how a specific voter voted, particularly in a small county with a precinct having a limited number of people on any given day and where people know one another.

The State Board of Elections’ legal division advised lawmakers to amend the bill to include the following clause: "In releasing these documents, election officials shall not compromise the secrecy of an individual's ballot."

The board's legal division has also advised legislators to completely eliminate a provision of the bill that would appear to give counties the ability to sidestep the board's authority to approve any changes to North Carolina's voting system by doing away with vote tabulators and relying solely on hand-counting ballots.

Despite bipartisan support from outside groups, House Bill 770 was not put to a vote in the committee after representatives from both parties expressed a desire to work on amendments: "After a lot of comment from you and others, we are not going to have a vote," House elections committee chair Representative Grey Mills (R-Iredell) said at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting.

The bill's sponsors announced they would meet on Wednesday to discuss suggestions and changes before resubmitting the bill to the committee. That meeting, however, did not occur. One of the primary sponsors, Representative Ted Davis (R-New Hanover), said they might spend the rest of the year making changes before trying to pass it in the first few months of 2024, possibly in time for the changes to be in place for the elections that year.

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