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Hunter seeks both Medicaid expansion, projects

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Thursday, July 11, 2019

State Rep. Howard Hunter said Wednesday he is still pushing for both Medicaid expansion and infrastructure projects in Pasquotank and Hertford counties — but he acknowledged it's an uphill battle.

"At this point — and I want to emphasize 'at this point' — I am voting to sustain the veto unless something changes," said Hunter, D-Hertford, referring to Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the Republican-written state budget. "I want to see (approval of) Medicaid expansion come out of the Senate."

That could be a tall order. Senate President Phil Berger and other Senate leaders are opposed to expanding Medicaid and continue to criticize Cooper for the veto, claiming the governor is "holding hostage" the two-year budget because it doesn't include expansion of the health insurance program for low-income people.

Hunter voted with the Republican majority in the House — the only Democrat to do so — to approve the two-year budget even though it didn't include Medicaid expansion. Hunter said he has been criticized for doing so, but says the way he looked at it, Medicaid was not part of the budget.

Hunter said he supports Medicaid expansion, noting it's important to citizens of the three counties he represents — Hertford, Gates and Pasquotank.

"All of my constituents are hollering, 'Medicaid, Medicaid, Medicaid,'" he said.

But Hunter said he also supports the projects he was able to get included in the GOP budget, such as funding for a homeless shelter and shipyard cleanup in Elizabeth City and water and sewer infrastructure in Hertford County. Hunter said the projects are priorities passed on to him by local officials, noting Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker and other officials have thanked him for pursuing them.

"These are all needs," Hunter said. "They are not wants. They are stuff that was needed."

The legislators Hunter is working with to keep the projects in the budget are mainly members of the Republican majority in the House. In those discussions, he's trying to argue for both expanding Medicaid and funding the projects, he said.

"I'm fighting," Hunter said. "I'm doing the best that I can. I don't want to walk away without Medicaid expansion or without the projects I got in the budget. I'm trying to work with them (GOP leaders) to get Medicaid and keep the projects."

Hunter said he is facing a lot of criticism from some fellow Democrats and progressive activists for his willingness to work with GOP leaders. But Hunter said he always promised to work across the aisle if it could benefit his constituents in the 5th House District.

"We vote issues where we're from," Hunter said. "We don't mind crossing party lines to help our constituents, to help our area."

Hunter believes even more Democrats would support the budget if both the House and Senate would pass the Carolina Cares bill. Carolina Cares is a Republican-crafted version of Medicaid expansion that would provide health insurance options for low-income workers, roughly those earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Under the bill, beneficiaries would be required to work, pay a small premium — 2 percent of household income — get a primary care doctor and engage in wellness activities like annual screenings.

Hunter said House Speaker Tim Moore in fact has told him the Carolina Cares bill could pass in the House. He noted it has already been approved by the House Health Committee.

"The speaker assured me that Carolina Cares would come out of the House and will come to the Senate," he said.

But what Moore is hearing from the Senate leadership, he said, is that the chamber won't hear the bill.

That is likely to leave GOP efforts to override Cooper's veto at a standstill.

According to The Associated Press, House leaders have been unsuccessful attempting to override Cooper's veto, largely because they can't get enough Democrats to support the effort. While Republicans hold majorities in both the Senate and House, they no longer hold veto-proof majorities.

Cooper made a counteroffer to GOP legislators on Tuesday that included Medicaid expansion, the AP reported. However, Republican leaders accused the governor of blocking negotiations because he insists on expanding Medicaid.

Hunter said he could support overriding Cooper's budget veto if Medicaid expansion was approved by both the House and the Senate.

"That's what I wanted," Hunter said. "That was my sticking point. ... I would like to see Carolina Cares come out of the Senate before I make a decision about the override."