If North Carolina Democrats hoped — and North Carolina Republicans feared — that a Roy Cooper administration would represent a clean break from the administration of former Gov. Pat McCrory, both sides have good reason to revise their expectations.
During his first 15 months in office, Gov. Cooper has sparred repeatedly with the Republican-controlled General Assembly and picked some imprudent fights on contentious social issues. At the same time, however, there has been significant policy continuity between the two gubernatorial administrations. I’ll give you four substantive examples.
To begin with, remember the years of controversy about whether North Carolina should introduce broader managed care and competitive contracting into the administration of its Medicaid program? Remember the relentless attacks, sometime nasty, against McCrory’s first secretary of health and human services, Dr. Aldona Wos?
The McCrory administration and legislature persevered. They began the Medicaid reform process. To its credit, the Cooper administration hasn’t tried to slow-walk or reverse it. In fact, the implementation hasn’t proved to be a grudging one. Dave Richard, who directs Medicaid for Cooper, told Triangle Business Journal that when it comes to the quality of care delivered to Medicaid patients, there are “a lot of opportunities inside of managed care that are difficult to achieve in fee-for-service,” such as “methods that really reward outcomes rather than just completing the service.”
Also contrary to some predictions, the state’s preexisting network of Medicaid providers, Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC), wasn’t muscled aside. Instead, it is striking deals with private firms that will bid for Medicaid business. CCNC vice president Stan Taylor said that portends “a good result for patients and the Medicaid program.”
Another example concerns transportation funding. After decades of excessive pork-barrel influence on what should be a data-driven process, the McCrory administration and General Assembly devised a new set of formulas that placed a high priority on projected public benefits in such areas as alleviating traffic congestion and promoting safety.
Cooper and his team could have tried to wriggle out from under these formulas and return to the approach of previous administrations. They might even have gotten some disenchanted lawmakers from both parties to join them. But it didn’t happen.
Still another McCrory reform was to contract out business-recruitment efforts once performed by Department of Commerce employees to a quasi-private entity, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Cooper could have tried to undo or go around the contract. He didn’t. He told his staff to work together with the partnership.
Finally, and perhaps most dismaying to state progressives, the governor hasn’t proposed to roll back the multi-billion-dollar set of tax reforms and tax cuts that McCrory and the General Assembly began in 2013. Cooper could have, in the initial budget plan he submitted a year ago.
Obviously, Republican lawmakers wouldn’t have gone along with any plan to raise tax rates on personal income, corporate income, or retail sales. Still, Democrats claim that the tax reductions were not only unwise but have constrained state spending in a way that most North Carolinians don’t like.
So, why not propose a much-larger budget for education and other services, paid for by higher taxes? If Democratic progressives are right, voters would have rallied to Cooper’s banner, allowing him either to overcome GOP intransigence or at least to frame the issue well for the 2018 midterm elections. Cooper and his team saw such a strategy as a dangerous trap, all right — but for them, not for the Republicans.
On taxes and some of these other issues, there’s no doubt that Roy Cooper and Pat McCrory have different principles and priorities. But Cooper isn’t a neophyte. He knows that winning one of the closest gubernatorial elections in American history, by two-tenths of a percentage point, wasn’t exactly a compelling mandate for full-throated progressivism.
He also knows, I suspect, that North Carolina’s Medicaid program and transportation-funding policies were outmoded. The continuity I describe is likely a combination of political calculation and policy convergence. It’s also good for our state.