Gov. Roy Cooper makes passionate plea for Medicaid expansion while proposing state budget

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Governor Roy Cooper proposed the new budget for North Carolina--$25 billion including funding for COVID-19 recovery, unemployment, small businesses, food banks, housing, disaster relief and more.

The budget, includes $559 million from the state's general fund. Cooper also laid out plans for $978 million in federal money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which must be spent by the end of 2020.

"The budget I propose takes on the challenges of today while building for the promise of tomorrow," Cooper said. "We have to rise to the occasion of this pandemic response now and focus on ways to emerge from this crisis stronger than before."

The proposed use of funds from the state's general fund includes a one-time $2,000 bonus for K-12 public school teachers, principals and assistant principals, a $1,000 bonus for K-12 non-certified personnel, and a $1,500 bonus for UNC System and community college faculty and staff. It also includes $50 million for the state's most at-risk students and early childhood education.

"Through ordinary and extraordinary times, we ask a lot of our educators. We trust them with helping us grow the leaders of tomorrow. Let's put our money where our trust is," Cooper said.

The general fund proposal also includes $86.5 million in disaster relief funds for areas still recovering from hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian, as well as Isaias, and for Alleghany County. It also allocates $5 million to local governments in rural communities that are struggling financially.

Cooper proposed taking advantage of historically low interest rates to set up two bonds: one $988 million bond that would include funds for broadband access, a new DHHS facility, isolation units for mental health hospitals, prisons and long term care facilities, and vaccine research and development. State Budget Director Charlie Perusse said the governor would not have to seek a public vote for this bond, which could be approved immediately.

The other bond, which the public would vote on in 2021, would allocate $4.3 billion for schools, higher education, water and sewer infrastructure and affordable housing. Cooper added that every $1 million invested in this area directly creates 13 jobs and indirectly supports 28 more.

Cooper delivered passionate addresses asking for more funding for unemployed North Carolinians through the state's $3 billion unemployment trust fund, including raising the cap on weekly benefits from $350 per week to $500 per week and extending the payment period to 24 weeks.

"People are hurting right now," Cooper said, adding that North Carolina currently ranks near the bottom of the nation both in terms of amount given to unemployed individuals and payment period. "This pandemic has knocked them out of work and left them with few options. Helping the unemployed is what this trust fund is for, so let it do some work."

In answering a question during a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Cooper said the state's Division of Employment Security's application to secure a $300 weekly benefit for each unemployed North Carolinian from the Federal Emergency Management Association was approved. Cooper said he hoped by next week, unemployed North Carolinians who qualify for the funds would receive three weeks worth of benefits. But he also urged Congress and President Donald Trump to continue to work to restore the $600 weekly benefit that expired at the end of July.

RELATED: What's keeping lawmakers from a COVID-19 relief deal

Cooper also put in a plea for Medicaid expansion, which he said would not cost the state anything, but would be covered by federal funds and private health insurance companies. Cooper cited unemployment due to the pandemic as a critical reason why Medicaid expansion is urgent.

RELATED: Medicaid enrollment, costs growing as unemployment surges in North Carolina

"First, unlike last year, we're in the middle of pandemic. A lot of people have lost their jobs, and thus their health insurance. Now is the time to expand Medicaid," Cooper said. "It provides health insurance for working people in those states, it also helps the economy, it also helps rural hospitals, it also helps private insurance premiums."

Cooper said instead of using federal CARES Act and other funding to pay for mental health treatment, the state could use Medicaid funds.

"This should be really easy," Cooper said. "I think you have to look at this point in time as different from last year. Yeah, we were having disputes about Medicaid expansion, but then a pandemic happened. And now a lot of people are hurting. And now we're fighting for every federal dollar we can get, and here it is right here! Here is the money to expand Medicaid and to get health insurance to five to 600,000 North Carolinians probably more now because many of them don't have jobs. And they're not gonna do it? I don't understand it."

In a joint statement, Senate budget writers Sens. Harry Brown (R-Onslow), Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston), and Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) on Wednesday said: "This 'spend now, pray later' budget strategy resulted in teacher salary cuts and layoffs when the last Democratic governor tried it. The Governor is ignoring warnings from nonpartisan budget experts so he can produce a four-months-late budget proposal that reads more like a prop from an episode of 'Veep.'"

NC House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) sent the following statement to ABC11 regarding the proposal: North Carolina has crisis funding available due to Republican budget leadership in the General Assembly and President Trump's CARES Act relief. Lawmakers are working together to continue appropriating those funds and will review this input from the Governor.

To read the full budget proposal, click here.
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