Local advocates are urging state legislators to fund a $215 million expansion of ECU’s Brody School of Medicine that is promised in the state’s overdue budget, while lawmakers are disputing whether all the money is even available.
The General Assembly is reconvening at noon on Tuesday. According to Pat Ryan, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, only one item is on the agenda, a bill to fund a scholarship program for children of veterans.
If, however, one Democratic senator says he or she will join the Senate’s 29 Republicans to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the 2019-21 biennium budget, that vote will take place, Ryan said.
Cooper vetoed the budget because it did not contain funding for Medicaid expansion, expected to provide health care coverage for more than 500,000 North Carolinians.
However, the plan included a provision that makes $215 million available over a six-year period to fund construction of a larger building of the medical school at East Carolina University. The expansion will allow the medical school to increase its class size and graduate more doctors, officials have said.
“When you look back at all the success of Greenville over the years, all the growth, all the development, the improved health care, the access to arts and entertainment and everything that has improved in the last few decades, it can be traced back to the Brody School of Medicine,” Greenville City Councilman Brian Meyerhoeffer said at Thursday’s council meeting. “Getting a new Brody School of Medicine, I think, is paramount for the City of Greenville and Pitt County and ECU.”
The Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, in a statement on Page A4 of today’s newspaper, urges the General Assembly to approve funding for the medical school and to take action to close the state’s health care coverage gap, without specifically endorsing Medicaid expansion.
“We believe all parties should view the Brody facility and Medicaid expansion for what they truly are: independent pieces of legislation that should stand separately from one another,” the letter stated. “Instead of ardently digging themselves in on the Medicaid issue, we encourage the General Assembly and governor to come together to find a compromise in order for our state to move forward. While searching for a compromise, the funding for the Brody facility should be appropriated so that work can begin on this much-needed facility.”
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, whose 1st Congressional District includes Pitt County, also weighed in on the budget impasse on today’s editorial page.
Butterfield called the process surrounding the budget “extremely disturbing,” because Republican budget writers wouldn’t fund Medicaid expansion even though the state had a $700 million budget surplus.
He said the budget also fails to provide full funding to build a new medical school.
“Their action leaves it to legislators of the future to come through with funding needed to complete the project,” Butterfield said. “We need a new Brody School of Medicine and members of the General Assembly like Sen. Don Davis have been fighting for it. Republican leaders have presented North Carolinians with gimmicks rather than meaningful policy that serves our collective interests.”
As written, the budget distributes the medical school’s $215 million over a six-year period. The medical school would get $15 million in the current fiscal year, which is half over, and $13 million in fiscal year 20-21; $7 million in FY 21-22; $30 million in FY 22-23; $80 million in FY 23-24; and $70 million in 24-25.
A spokesman with the governor’s office said on Friday that language in the budget preceding the capital projects including the medical school raises questions about the funding. The language states:
“It is the intent of the General Assembly to fund capital improvement projects on a cash flow basis and to plan for future project funding based upon projected availability in the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund. Nothing in this section shall be construed (i) to appropriate funds or (ii) as an obligation by the General Assembly to appropriate funds for the projects listed in future years. The following schedule lists capital improvement projects that will begin or be completed in fiscal years outside of the 2019-2021 fiscal biennium.”
Ford Porter, the governor’s spokesman, said the reality is that the Republican budget does not fully fund the Brody expansion. “The governor strongly supports full funding of the Brody School in a way that guarantees that projects begun are actually completed. Important investments like this should be funded the right way and not offered as empty promises.”
Ryan, Berger’s spokesman, called Porter’s statement a “misleading rumor.”
“If the budget becomes law, then the entire project would be 100 percent authorized, and a six-year committed funding schedule would be set in law. … The only way to undo it would be for a future legislature to come in and change the law,” Ryan said. “By the logic coming from the Cooper administration, the only way to guarantee the new school of medicine is built is to complete the project within a single 24-month period, before a new legislature comes in and can change the law. That’s impossible and it’s not how any of this works.”
Ryan said Cooper was making the statement to “justify any Democrat, including Senator Don Davis, continuing to stand with the governor and his veto which, would mean zero dollars in funding for the Brody School of Medicine.”
Staff with the General Assembly’s nonpartisan fiscal research staff said the state’s current General Assembly can’t bind future legislators to appropriation decisions the current body made.
“It’s ultimately at the discretion of future General Assemblies, much like 99.9 percent of the rest of the budget is dependent on what a future General Assembly may do,” staff said.
It’s not a guarantee, but the current General Assembly has conveyed its intent to continue to fund the project and hasn’t overspent projected availability of funds in future years, the staff said.
“But to be perfectly clear, even if the General Assembly set aside $215 million right now, nothing would stop a future body from saying it didn’t want to complete the project,” the staff said.
Much of last year’s debate about the budget focused on which Democratic senator would likely flip and vote with Republicans to override the governor’s veto. Pitt County’s Davis drew attention because he was one of four Democrats who joined with Republicans to adopt the original budget, in part because of the medical school funding.
Davis repeatedly said last fall he wouldn’t vote for the override because he believed additional negotiations were needed.
“There is a lot of interest in that one vote. That one vote that will get them there but there are other ways to get there. This is a process,” Davis said on Friday.
He wants bigger pay raises for teachers, retired teachers and state employees and non-certified public school staff.
Republican leaders in December proposed separate legislation to further increase teacher pay but said it would only come after the budget was approved.
“I want to fight for everybody. When you press that button, conversations are not guaranteed to continue,” Davis said. “Here’s what I’m saying, we can talk now. I don’t understand the scenario press the button then we talk. We can talk right now. … We can all talk to get to something that benefits all of eastern North Carolina and the state.”