Governor Cooper talks prosperity, culture war warning

RALEIGH, N.C. (WITN/AP) -North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper urged legislators on Monday night to keep fueling opportunities for the state’s citizens to succeed through more monetary investments in K-12 education, mental health services and public safety.

“Our moment to build enduring prosperity is now. And I know that North Carolina is ready,” Cooper said while delivering what’s likely his final biennial State of the State address to a joint House-Senate session at the Legislative Building.

The state of the state, the governor added at the close of his 34-minute televised speech, is “bright and energized with the promise of tomorrow.”

But Cooper – barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive four-year term in 2024 – also warned Republicans in charge of the General Assembly against passing measures that would further attempt to limit abortion access and restrict voting. He said they could slow the state’s economic engine. He pointed to other proposals that would limit how teachers can instruct students about race and sexuality and gender identity.

“I challenge this General Assembly to keep us off the front lines of those culture wars that hurt people and cost us jobs so that we can continue our successful bipartisan work,” Cooper said. He referred to the economic fallout from a 2016 state law – later partially repealed – that limited which public bathrooms that transgender people could use.

While Cooper has successfully blocked other measures with his veto stamp over the past four years, Republican electoral gains in November put them only one seat shy of holding veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

“Use the public schools to build a brighter future, not to bully and marginalize LGBTQ students. Don’t make teachers re-write history,” Cooper said. “Keep the freedom to vote in reach for every eligible voter. Leave the decisions about reproductive health care to women and their doctors.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is widely expected to run to succeed Cooper next year, gave the prerecorded GOP response after Cooper’s speech.

Robinson said, “Since Republicans were elected to the majority in the General Assembly, they have implemented commonsense economic policies to ensure that you can keep more of your hard-earned money. (And) They’ve been good stewards of your money. Like your family, they had to set a budget and stick to it. That fiscal responsibility resulted in historic economic growth. The Republican-led General Assembly turned a state that was billions of dollars in debt and struggling financially into an economic powerhouse. North Carolina is the number one state in the nation to do business. (But) while we’ve seen tremendous growth across the state, many families are still struggling. If the Democrats have their way, they’ll pull us back into an era of government overreach, high taxes, and attacks on our personal freedoms.”

Cooper took some credit for the state’s recent successes, pointing to his focus on developing the state into a locale for the clean energy economy, particularly with recent electric vehicle industry announcements. His administration also has benefitted from federal funds to boost child care, build high-speed internet in rural areas and renovate infrastructure. Flush state coffers have helped, too.

Cooper thanked GOP legislators for passing with him a 2021 carbon emissions reduction law. He also praised the Republican announcement last week of an agreement to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults after a decade of waiting. Still, Cooper pleaded with legislators to enact it now – rather than wait a few months later – to tap into more federal money for hospitals.

On education, Cooper said his two-year budget proposal expected later this month would fund the entire remedial education spending plan that a trial judge approved in 2021 and pitch “double-digit” percentage raises for teacher and principals.

The remedial plan was designed to comply with long-ago state Supreme Court rulings that found the state is falling short on giving children the “opportunity for a sound basic education.” The legislature will approve the lawmakers’ own budget to present to Cooper.

In November, the state Supreme Court affirmed state money could be transferred to agencies to carry out the remedial plan without express General Assembly approval. But a new version of the court – flipped from a Democratic majority to Republican – said Friday it would revisit the case known as “Leandro,” named for an original lawsuit plaintiff.

In an audience that included Chief Justice Paul Newby and other justices sitting nearby, Cooper said the “court should uphold decades of bipartisan Supreme Court precedent that comes down on the side of the children, because that’s what really matters –- the children.”