Midway through his first term, Gov. Pat McCrory presented his goals for a more prosperous North Carolina in his State of the State address on Wednesday night.
Among his announced plans were creating jobs, raising both expectations and rewards for educators, and explaining how to pay for his ambitious transportation improvements across the state.
For the most part, the ideas were not new, but the governor provided details on programs that he has previously promoted.
In broad strokes, he said there were five guiding principles in his message:
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• Creating jobs.
• Ensuring people have the education they need to be productive citizens.
• Connecting small towns with urban centers through roads and technology.
• Improving health and safety.
• Cutting government inefficiencies.
In a speech that lasted 80 minutes, McCrory ticked off a list of challenges over the past year, such as weather-related disasters, the coal ash spill and the bumpy economy. He interspersed his remarks with anecdotes illustrated by a handful of special guests, including Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Potts, who was shot during a traffic stop in Durham County in 2013.
“Ladies and gentlemen, like Trooper Potts, I’m proud to report the state of North Carolina has come back even stronger,” he said, at one point struggling for composure. “Its people are resilient, and its future is bright.”
The highlights included:
McCrory touted the falling unemployment rate and new jobs. But he echoed his 2013 address in saying, “You know and I know there are a lot of people still suffering out there.”
Despite some economic gains, North Carolina is still struggling in many ways: Rural communities are not following its cities on their way to recovery; wages remain stagnant; and jobs haven’t kept pace with population growth. Tax collections are $200 million below what was projected for this fiscal year, and $475 million in net tax and non-tax revenues below what they were in the same period last year, according to legislative analysts.
The governor said he needs the legislature to provide funding for incentives to lure businesses. He said that was needed within a matter of weeks, not months.
His N.C. Competes program is designed to create long-term sustainable jobs by using university research to attract capital and focus on the parts of the state that are lagging in jobs.
The governor vowed to raise teacher base pay to $35,000, eliminate unnecessary testing by next year, bring Wi-Fi into classrooms, speed up teacher certification and increase commercial potential for university research.
McCrory has indicated in the past that he was open to expanding Medicaid insurance coverage for the needy, but legislative leaders have said they aren’t interested in advancing that this session.
The governor hedged but promised any recommendation involving Medicaid reform would be a practical one tailored to the state’s needs.
“If we come up with a proposal and determine it’s best for North Carolina to cover the uninsured, it must protect North Carolina taxpayers,” McCrory said.
He said that would include requiring personal and financial responsibility for those who would be covered.
“I will only recommend a North Carolina plan, not a Washington plan, so we can put patients first.”
McCrory appeared to back away from a pledge he issued in September to give the 2015 General Assembly “targeted revenue recommendations” for shoring up the state’s anemic gas tax and providing a more sustainable source of transportation money for the growing state.
After reiterating an earlier proposal to borrow $1.2 billion for highway and other transportation projects, he signaled that he would wait for legislators to take the lead on recommending any specific new transportation taxes, fees or other revenue sources.
“Additionally I will support your efforts to protect and stabilize our existing transportation revenue streams, while also looking at funding reform and alternatives for our future transportation and infrastructure needs,” McCrory said.
McCrory said the proposed bonds would be spent on “the next projects in line, scored under the mobility formula, with the environmental documents in place so we can begin those projects immediately.”
The bond proposal was met with hesitancy in the legislature.
Senate Leader Phil Berger said of the bond proposal, “We need a little more specificity on that.”
“I was glad to hear him talk about the progress we’ve made in North Carolina over the last four years and the last two years,” Berger said.
Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, said, “I strongly support making sure we’ve gotten every efficiency we can out of the existing departments before we pledge the good faith and credit of the state on the bonds.”
McCrory also spoke of “Project Phoenix,” a resurrected government committee that he began talking about last fall, to renovate aging buildings through a $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion general obligation bond issue. Crumbling and unsightly government buildings have particularly irked the former mayor of Charlotte.
He touts it as a way to save taxpayer money and increase workplace safety.
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said the economic recovery hasn’t helped enough of the state.
“Today, middle-class families in other states are finally a little more optimistic about their future, more secure in their mortgages, and more confident in their ability to provide for their families,” he said. “But the fact is, too many families here in North Carolina are still living paycheck to paycheck. Too many moms and dads are staying up at night worrying about creating a better future for their children. For them, the recovery just isn’t complete yet. Now is the time to focus on building an economy that works for everyone, not just the very wealthy and a chosen few.”
Hall also said McCrory was failing the state’s students because of cuts to classroom resources and low teacher pay.
Staff writers Bruce Siceloff and Lindsey Burnson, and Charlotte Observer writer Jim Morrill contributed.