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Column: Senate’s revenge budget move would harm rural healthcare

by Colin Campbell

“It’s petty, y’all” was how Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, described part of the state Senate’s budget proposal last week.

He’s right, but it didn’t have to be that way. Senate leaders rolled out their two-year spending plan in a news conference Tuesday, highlighting strong proposals to give state employees a 5 percent raise, give veteran teachers a $1,000 bonus, expand rural broadband internet access and cut taxes for individuals and businesses.

But the news conference was deliberately held before the actual budget documents were made public. Reporters can’t ask good questions about a plan they haven’t seen, so it took another day for the more controversial hidden budget provisions to emerge. And when they did, tax cuts and education funding were buried under the more eye-popping headlines.

One revenge provision would target Eastern North Carolina’s largest healthcare provider, Vidant Health. Lawmakers are currently in a dispute with Vidant and Pitt County leaders over whether the UNC Board of Governors should have seats on Vidant’s governing board.

Because senators are mad that they won’t have seats on the board – and perhaps because Vidant’s CEO is a vocal supporter of Medicaid expansion – a budget provision would cut $35 million from Vidant’s Medicaid reimbursement. Lawmakers are also considering revoking Vidant’s status as the teaching hospital for East Carolina University’s medical school and instead spending your tax dollars to build a whole new teaching hospital in Greenville.

It’s an absurdly drastic solution to a minor dispute over board seats, and it could have a catastrophic effect on healthcare access in struggling rural communities. Vidant’s current structure uses profits from its big hospital in Greenville to subsidize hospitals in smaller communities like Bertie, Chowan, Beaufort and Duplin counties. If Vidant loses funding, it might have to close some of those hospitals.

Sen. Rick Horner, R-Nash, pleaded with his GOP colleagues to “look into your hearts” and spare Vidant, but he was the only Republican to join Democrats in opposing the provision. Two senators, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, and Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, ultimately made a politically dumb move to shaft hospitals in their own districts.

When your party’s leaders routinely use the budget to punish anyone who crosses them, it can be hard to muster the courage Horner showed to vote against leadership – even if it means voting against your own constituents’ healthcare.

Another vengeful provision was eventually reversed before the final budget vote. It would have eliminated half of the six-person staff assigned to newly appointed N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat. She’d become the only appellate judge in the state with only one law clerk to help her issue rulings.

Budget writers offered a bizarre, nonsensical explanation for the cut: They noted that most law firms in smaller cities west of Charlotte get by with fewer staff attorneys than the state Supreme Court. It’s unclear how a small-town law firm’s workload would compare to the state’s Supreme Court.

The real reason was likely the Senate’s animosity toward Beasley, who Gov. Roy Cooper picked over Republican Justice Paul Newby. Cutting Beasley’s staff could also advantage GOP lawmakers by slowing down the Supreme Court’s ruling process.

With a Democratic majority on the court, it’s likely to strike down some GOP laws and could even rule against partisan gerrymandering. A backlog in the Supreme Court’s workload could delay those rulings.

After several days of outcry, senators backtracked and restored the cuts, but the Vidant cut remains. Let’s just hope state House leaders and Gov. Cooper use their power to stand up to bullies and keep that provision out of the final budget too.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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