Raleigh, N.C. — Despite Gov. Roy Cooper's call for finding common ground to move North Carolina forward, he and legislative Republicans continued to trade punches Monday night.
Cooper made his first appearance before the General Assembly to deliver his biennial State of the State address and promised to work with lawmakers to improve education, battle opioid addiction and help the state recover from Hurricane Matthew. But not before delivering broadsides about Republican tax policy and the impasse over repealing House Bill 2, the state law the deals with LGBT rights and the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals.
"I promise to listen, to engage, to build consensus, to compromise when possible. I promise to fight only when we can’t come to agreement or when you leave me no choice," Cooper said late in his 37-minute address.
The latter portion of that statement is likely to occur more than the former, based on Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's comments in the official GOP response to Cooper.
"Tonight, we heard the Left’s new champion – Roy Cooper – push their vision for the future of North Carolina," Berger said, "except it is not a vision for the future of North Carolina at all. It’s a mirage. It’s merely a retreat to our troubled past."
House Speaker Tim Moore was a little more conciliatory to Cooper in a one-minute video he posted online before the governor's speech, saying he sees some items in Cooper's budget where lawmakers can work with him. But he held the line firm when it comes to spending.
"We need to continue down the pathway we've been on, which is lowering taxes, reducing the overall burden to taxpayers," Moore said. "That's brought investment to this state."
Cooper opened his remarks, after praising North Carolina residents, by noting that House Bill 2 is blocking investments in the state.
"Our people are welcoming, but some of our laws are not," he said. "HB2 is the dark cloud hanging over our state of promise. It drains the energy from what should be our work for the people of this state. Citizens from Cherokee to Chocowinity are sick of it, and they are wondering when we’re going to cut away this heavy anchor weighing us down."
He vowed to immediately sign repeal legislation that ends discrimination and encourages businesses, athletic events and conventions to return to the state.
Much of Cooper's speech reiterated the priorities he laid out two weeks ago when he unveiled his 2017-18 budget proposal, calling for investing in education, infrastructure and health care to set the stage for more growth in the state.
"I want North Carolinians to be better educated, healthier and have more money in their pockets," he said.
Both the governor and lawmakers have called for raising teacher salaries, although their approaches differ somewhat. Cooper also wants to expand the state's pre-kindergarten program, reinstate the state's Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit and provide scholarships to those who want to become teachers and to people seeking job-training at North Carolina's community colleges.
Cooper illustrated points in his education by saluting teachers from Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro who were in the House gallery.
"There’s a price tag on these investments in education, but now that the economy is rebounding, it’s time to make smart, strategic investments in our people," he said. "We cannot sacrifice education at the altar of even more corporate tax cuts or giveaways that are mostly for the wealthiest. Changes to our tax code need to focus on relief for working families, not corporations and millionaires."
A Wilson sweet potato farmer served as the symbol for Cooper's pitch to expand broadband access to more of rural North Carolina, which was one of his plans to boost the state's economy. He also called for more worker training, aid to small businesses, resurrecting the tax credit for film and television productions and expanding the solar and wind energy industries in the state.
"Our unemployment rate is still 5.3 percent, the same as last January," he said. "Meanwhile, our Unemployment Trust Fund has grown to more than $2 billion. That’s good, but we must use this opportunity and these funds to help for those who can’t find work, while also taking a deeper look at those who are chronically unemployed."
One of Cooper's main pushes since taking office two months ago has been to expand the state's Medicaid program to cover more low-income people. He again made that point Monday as a way to make the state healthier, but he never mentioned Medicaid by name.
"While we’ve made progress in getting more people health insurance, we still have an alarming gap in coverage that we’re all paying for with high-priced indigent care," he said. "We have to sit down and have serious discussions about improving access to care for people who don’t have it."
Republicans have vehemently opposed expanding Medicaid, saying it will cost the state too much in the long run. They've also come out against many of his other proposals, from specific tax credits to increased spending.
In his eight-minute response, Berger ticked off a list of GOP accomplishments since seizing control of the legislature six years ago: lower taxes, budget surpluses, higher teacher salaries, saving more in the state's reserve fund.
"If anyone but Republicans had accomplished all of this, the press would herald North Carolina as a national success story," he said. "Instead, the institutions of the Left – the press, the Democratic Party and liberal special interests – have ginned up great controversy and false outrage. They organize vulgar rallies and protests. They disrupt public meetings. They attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business."
Cooper's proposals, Berger said, would be "a step back to out-of-control spending, back to high taxes," and he said the governor's actions don't back up his talk of working with lawmakers, citing his fights with the legislature over voter ID, House Bill 2 and other issues.
"Speaker Tim Moore and I, together with House and Senate Republicans won’t allow North Carolina to move backwards," Berger said. "We will continue to trust you – not government – to make the best choices for your family.