Raleigh, N.C. — Attorney General Roy Cooper used the first formal news conference in his run for governor to sketch his plans for improving education in North Carolina.
Cooper, a Democrat, is his party's front-runner to take on Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November. Both men face opposition in the March 15 primary, but polling suggests they'll have little trouble making it through to the general election.
"Even after K-12, we've got to get our young people prepared for the world, and in order to do that, we need a strong, solid bridge from our public schools to our community colleges and universities. I think we've done an excellent job over the years, but right now, we seem to be going backwards," Cooper said Tuesday afternoon.
Cooper spoke on the north Raleigh campus of Wake Technical Community College and was flanked by supporters, several of who were affiliated with the North Carolina Association of Educators. He spoke for about 12 minutes and then fielded questions for eight before leaving a science classroom on the campus.
Among the pitches he made were improving teacher pay, bringing back a child care tax credit, making community college free to all and increasing funding for pre-kindergarten.
This is not the first time a Democrat running for governor has pledged to bring about free or low-cost community college tuition. Gov. Bev Perdue promised something similar when running in 2008. She won that year but walked into a budget ransacked by a major recession and was unable to follow through.
Cooper took several direct shots at McCrory during the news conference, suggesting he had made cutting taxes a priority over education spending.
McCrory's campaign shot back with a prepared statement that Cooper had been far from specific in how he would pay for his proposals.
"Any time a lawyer-politician promises you something for free, middle-class families should hold on to their wallets," McCrory campaign manager Russell Peck said, likening Cooper's statements to those offered by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. "Governor McCrory is working together with educational leaders to implement actual strategies to improve North Carolina schools and raise teacher pay."
Cooper did suggest potential tax changes that could help pay for his proposed education spending. His most specific proposal would be stopping planned cuts to the state's corporate income tax. He also suggested reworking recent changes to the individual income tax to curb benefits to the wealthy.
Asked whether those changes would amount to a tax increase, Cooper said, "No."
Pressed how stopping cuts to the corporate income tax rate would not be a tax increase, he replied, "Well, listen, they (the General Assembly) are continuing toward a zero corporate tax rate. They're continuing that trajectory, and that's wrong for North Carolina. That's reducing the amount of money that you can use for investment in education and giving tax breaks to the middle class."
Asked how he would push such changes through a Republican-controlled General Assembly that crafted the changes he wants to reverse, Cooper said the task was not impossible.
"What you need is an executive in the Governor's Office who is going to make that a priority and is going to pull together the business community to let the legislature know how critical it is that we fund our community colleges and our universities and that we raise teacher salaries and invest in public education," Cooper said. "What we have right now is a governor who has not made that a priority."