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Cooper makes appeal for common ground to skeptical General Assembly

Democratic governor, GOP-led legislature agree on many issues but differ dramatically in approach

Gov. Roy Cooper outside the House chamber immediately after giving his State of the State Address March 13. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Gov. Roy Cooper outside the House chamber immediately after giving his State of the State Address March 13. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

RALEIGH ­— Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper sought common ground during his first State of the State address to the Republican-controlled General Assembly on Monday night.

While the governor’s 37-and-a-half-minute speech asked lawmakers for cooperation with his plans to improve education, recruit jobs, fight the opioid crisis, and help those still affected by Hurricane Matthew, Republicans used their response to call Cooper’s message “a retreat to a troubled past.”

Once again, Cooper brought up repealing House Bill 2, also known as the bathroom bill, which among other things negated a Charlotte ordinance requiring businesses to allow transgender people to use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity.

Democrats in the chamber rose and offered thunderous applause when he asked for the H.B. 2 repeal as Republicans sat in silence. He asked for a compromise repeal bill. “And I will sign it as long as it truly gets the job done,” Cooper said. “H.B. 2 is the dark cloud hanging over our state of promise.”

Cooper reminded legislators the state’s leaders should work together.

“I want to report to you that the state of our state is promising,” Cooper said. I believe we are a state of promise at our core.”

But Cooper said many feel left behind, and his budget would help them. “It contains no tax increases. I call this budget, Common Ground Solutions, because it contains many areas of agreement.”

While saying that he and legislators need to work together to help people who don’t have health insurance to get it, he didn’t mention his proposal to expand Medicaid, which GOP leaders oppose.

Cooper recalled his time in the General Assembly, reminding lawmakers he was once sat in one of those seats. He said he served with both Democratic and Republican governors. He promised to listen, to compromise, and work with legislators. He urged lawmakers to set aside divisive social issues even though he opened his address demanding the repeal of H.B. 2.

In the Republican response, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, called Cooper “the Left’s new champion.” Berger said the Democrats’ plan “is not a vision for the future of North Carolina at all — it’s a mirage.”

Berger listed a litany of accomplishments since Republicans claimed majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly following the 2010 elections.

“As promised, they slash the unemployment rate in half by empowering the private sector to create half a million new jobs,” Berger said. “They stop spending and borrowing beyond their means. They prioritize what matters most, like public education. They turn a $2.5 billion deficit into a half billion-dollar surplus.”

He listed other actions: guaranteeing no tuition increase during a student’s four years in the UNC system, expanding public charter schools, increasing teacher pay, investing in the rainy day fund, improving reading scores, and increasing high school graduation rates.

Berger said Cooper has taken partisan stands, including encouraging Democratic legislators to sink an effort to repeal H.B. 2 during a special session last December.

Berger said the he and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, won’t allow the state to look back. “We will continue to trust you — not government — to make the best choices for your family,” Berger said. “And we will continue to be guided by the principle: ‘That government is best which governs least.’”

Cooper offered some specific proposals to the General Assembly. Lawmakers are likely to approve some with few changes. Others may survive, but in a much different form. Still others are likely to remain on the governor’s wish list when the General Assembly adjourns later this year.

Common ground

  • Cooper and the General Assembly want to increase teacher pay, but their plans vary. Democrats stood and applauded when Cooper called for raising teacher pay to the national average. Republicans remained seated and applauded politely. Their plan calls for increasing teacher pay to a $55,000 average.
  • Both the Democratic governor and Republican General Assembly will push economic development proposals.
  • Cooper praised Tom Bashore, the police chief in his hometown of Nashville, for working to combat the opioid addiction crisis.The program encourages addicts to seek treatment by walking into the police station without fear of arrest. Lawmakers also have bipartisan legislation seeking to address the addiction problem.
  • Cooper offered a boost to a proposal that would raise the age of people going to adult criminal court from 16 to 18, except for the more serious felonies. The measure has support from both sides of the political aisle in the General Assembly.

Maybe, maybe not

  • Cooper’s push for a repeal of H.B. 2 is far from certain. Lawmakers did not repeal the law during a December special session. Cooper and a bipartisan group of legislators have offered separate compromise bills. None have passed.
  • Cooper is pushing a “Best and Brightest” teaching scholarship program to encourage education majors to remain in North Carolina and teach after they graduate from college. Republicans are offering a different plan, with the emphasis placed on teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and special education curriculums, along with those who teach in low-performing schools.

Wish list:

  • Cooper wants to fund 4,700 more pre-kindergarten slots. While the proposal received a warm welcome from Democratic legislators Monday night, Republicans weren’t so enthusiastic.
  • Republicans are likely to reject Cooper’s push to restore tax credits for film tax production. They prefer to lure production companies to North Carolina through a grant program.
  • Cooper is pushing a $20 million plan to get broadband to rural areas. Republicans have a bill aimed at boosting broadband expansion through private businesses.
  • GOP leaders aren’t crazy about instituting a child and dependent care tax credit, preferring instead to offer across-the-board tax relief by expanding the personal exemption — increasing the amount of money people can earn before having to pay income tax.
  • Cooper’s push for free community college tuition, called NC GROW (Getting Ready for Opportunities in the Workforce), got a cool reception from legislative Republicans.

Senate Republicans are expected release their budget proposal for the 2017-18 fiscal year soon, perhaps by the end of the week.