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In State of the State, NC Gov. Cooper calls for education, infrastructure funding

Cooper state of the state.jpg
Travis Long/News & Observer - Pool
Gov. Roy Cooper delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the N.C. General Assembly on Monday, March 6, 2023 as, from left, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger look on.

Governor Roy Cooper called on state legislators to avoid “culture wars” issues that “hurt people and cost us jobs” in his final State of the State address Monday night.

He wants lawmakers to instead focus on funding key infrastructure and education needs such as broadband, clean energy, child care facilities and public utilities. He highlighted success stories in addressing those needs thanks to billions of dollars in new federal funding.

Cooper said he’s opposed to any new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. "More tax cuts for those at the top will stunt our growth when we should be investing in our workforce," he said.

While he said his budget proposal will include raises of more than 10% for teachers, Cooper’s speech largely avoided major new policy proposals. The governor’s ability to pass his agenda will be limited by the political realities in the legislature.

For the first time since 2018, Republicans have a nearly veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate. That means GOP legislative leaders can override Cooper’s vetoes if they can persuade one House Democrat to join them. Or they can wait for a moment when two House Democrats are absent from a voting session.

Some of the leverage he’s had for the past four years could shift to a handful of moderate Democrats in the House who might consider voting with Republicans on key issues.

House Speaker Tim Moore appointed several of those Democrats, including Reps. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, and Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe, to the “escort committee” that walked with Cooper into the House chamber for the speech.

The final minutes of Cooper’s speech cautioned Republicans against passing legislation to weaken gun regulations – something that’s already on the GOP’s agenda. He noted the rise in gun violence and said that “in the weeks to come, let’s move forward to fight gun violence, not backward.”

Cooper did, however, thank Republicans for agreeing to expand Medicaid after years of opposition. But while legislators want the policy change to take effect with the state budget this summer, the governor wants it to be immediate. He said that with every month of delay, North Carolina loses “$521 million a month in federal health care dollars.”

While Republicans are seeking to overturn an N.C. Supreme Court ruling in the Leandro case mandating more education funding, Cooper called on them to fund the court’s plan. “We have the money this year and next to fund the plan, and if we are smart about our tax policy, we can fund it well into the future,” he said.

Some GOP lawmakers appeared unpersuaded by the governor’s remarks, including Sen. Todd Johnson of Union County.

Cooper's speech was following by a prerecorded Republican response from Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Robinson’s speech Monday night sounded very different from fiery speeches he frequently gives at Republican gatherings. He’d spoken at the national CPAC conference over the weekend, an event that also featured a keynote from former President Donald Trump.

Robinson’s CPAC speech hinted at his plans to run for governor, but he didn’t mention that during his response to the State of the State. He did, however, begin by describing his own background, growing up in poverty and then working in a factory where he was laid off. It was the sort of biography common in launching political campaigns.

Robinson also called for personal income tax cuts – something favored by legislative leaders – as well as teacher pay increases and school security measures. He also referenced the ongoing battles over school curriculum, saying he wants to “get back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.”

“Their job is to teach, plain and simple,” Robinson said of teachers. “They should be teaching our students how to think, not what to think.”

Previous Republican responses to the State of the State have been given by House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger. The decision to hand the microphone to Robinson could potentially signal support for the lieutenant governor’s political future.

Democrats were quick to highlight Robinson's more controversial statements in the past about women and LGBTQ rights. “Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has made clear … he wants to tell you who to love – and who to hate,” N.C. Democratic Party Chairwoman Anderson Clayton said in a news release. “But this is who North Carolina Republicans have chosen to be their voice tonight.”