Cooper talks prosperity, culture war warning at State of the State

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, March 8, 2023

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By Gary D. Robertson and Hannah Schoenbaum, Associated Press

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.

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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 He referred to the economic fallout from a 2016 state law — later partially repealed — that limited which public bathrooms that transgender people could use.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 likely to run to attempt to succeed Cooper next year, gave the GOP response to his speech. Robinson promoted a Republican brand of fiscal responsibility, safety on the streets and public school teachers focusing on basic instruction, not ideology.

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.

“When we get Medicaid expansion across the finish line, it will save lives,” Cooper said following a standing ovation from Democrats.

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 first 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.”

While Cooper said the “youth mental health crisis cannot be ignored,” the governor also said he would propose a plan in the coming days “that makes historic investments in the whole-person health of every North Carolinian.” He didn’t provide details.

On law enforcement improvements, Cooper said resources are needed to recruit and retain more good officers, in part through better pay and training. But he also linked such support to keeping firearms out of the hands of children, criminals and those in danger of suicide.

“In the weeks to come, let’s move forward to fight gun violence, not backward,” Cooper said. While Republicans are backing legislation to boost the safe storage of guns, they’ve also been pushing to ease gun laws this year.

The GOP response gave Robinson an opportunity to reach voters during a term in office marked in part by his accusations that children in the public schools are being indoctrinated through both racial concepts and sex education.

Robinson described hardships as a child growing up in Greensboro and challenges as an adult, including bankruptcy and lost jobs.

“The same way that I overcame the challenges in my own life, we have an opportunity as a state to confront the challenges that we face today, and we can face them head on and work for a better future,” he said.