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Gambling with people’s lives: A tragic legislative session devolves into farce

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Gambling with people’s lives: A tragic legislative session devolves into farce

Sep 19, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Rob Schofield
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Gambling with people’s lives: A tragic legislative session devolves into farce
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Photo: Clayton Henkel

A game. An utterly cynical game that’s about nothing other than power, money and winning.

That’s clearly how North Carolina state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, and the minions with whom they surround themselves are treating the never-ending 2023 state legislative session over which they exert such complete and unmerited control.

Any inklings of doubt that one might have harbored in this regard were put to rest this past weekend with the latest remarkable revelation from the Legislative Building.

As multiple news outlets reported, the new GOP scheme to break their self-inflicted legislative stalemate that has now dragged two-and-a-half months into the new state fiscal year is an all-time doozy.

Under the plot – terms like “plan” and “proposal” seem much too dignified – the long and unnecessarily delayed expansion of the state’s Medicaid program would be removed from the state budget to which it had supposedly been linked for important fiscal reasons. Instead, it would be paired with – we’re not making this up – a bill to introduce casino gambling to the state. Click here to examine a copy of the proposed legislation that NC Newsline obtained on Monday afternoon.

Gov. Roy Cooper responded promptly on social media to the reports with the following scathing assessment:

“GOP demand for passage of their backroom casino deal in exchange for a state budget and Medicaid expansion is the most brutally dishonest legislative scheme I’ve seen in my 3+ decades. People are right to be suspicious. Something has a grip on Republican leaders and it’s not the people of NC.”

 

Cooper was being too generous.

There is, in fact, no need to “be suspicious” about anything in this malodorous strategy. The crooked cynicism at work here is plain for all to see.

First, is the obvious lie about Medicaid expansion.

After an inexcusable decade-long delay that caused thousands of premature deaths, GOP lawmakers finally bowed to public opinion and simple math and approved expansion back in March, making North Carolina the 40th state to take such action.

At the time, however, legislative leaders conditioned expansion on final approval of a new state budget. Their supposed rationale was that the issues were closely linked and that it would be irresponsible to allow expansion to proceed without a budget in place to assure that all the t’s were crossed and i’s dotted.

Everyone paying any attention knew this was a ruse. State Health and Human Services officials who would implement expansion made clear that it was completely unnecessary.

The real reason for the linkage, of course, was to maximize GOP political leverage and squeeze Cooper so that he would be forced to agree to any number of other Republican priorities – more tax cuts for corporations and the rich, the further privatization of public schools, perhaps some new anti-LGBTQ laws — when the budget finally made it to his desk.

Never mind that the delay would cause the state’s steadily mounting body count to rise still further. After all, what’s a few more premature deaths for low-income uninsured people when there’s an opportunity to further line the pockets of some well-heeled campaign contributors?

As the summer and new fiscal year dragged on, however, and the Cooper administration’s repeated pleas to move ahead with expansion continued to fall on deaf ears, it became apparent that something more sinister had wormed its way into the lawmaking gears on Jones Street.

Turns out, it wasn’t just the GOP’s affinity for tax cuts, selling off our public schools and appeasing paranoid culture warriors that was holding things up. It was old-fashioned pay-to-play politics – the kind in which moneyed special interests pony up big campaign contributions, promise new development in the rural county of a powerful senator, and shower big piles of cash on consultants with close ties to that same lawmaker.

Sadly, that’s the only conclusion one can draw about the out-of-nowhere idea that emerged this summer to introduce widespread casino gambling to a state that’s long and rightfully kept such an industry at arm’s length. This is especially true in light of Berger’s otherwise inexplicably passionate support for the scheme and last week’s report by WRAL that one of the principal corporations driving the casino gambling push, the Maryland-based Cordish Company, had hired “The Differentiators, a consulting firm run by Berger’s former chief of staff, Jim Blaine, and Berger’s former spokesman, Ray Martin.”

All of which brings us back to the noxious and downright Trumpian plan floated in recent days of combining the unrelated (and diametrically at-odds) Medicaid expansion and casino proposals.

This isn’t the kind of scheme that emerges in the ordinary dance of legislation in an honest and functional legislative body. It isn’t even the kind that one might expect in the hold-your-nose horse trading that sometimes marks late-session maneuvers.

This is corrupt and manipulative action of the kind that afflicts political actors who’ve enjoyed too much power for too long – so long that they begin to delusionally treat human beings as mere chess pieces, and equate their own personal influence, wealth, and success with that of the community they supposedly serve.

And in a legislative session marked by repeated tragic decisions, it’s an aptly farcical exclamation point.