Gov. Roy Cooper reached out to Republican legislators in his first State of the State address on Monday night, emphasizing their shared interests and not the high-profile skirmishes of his first 2 1/2 months in office.
Although the governor’s tone was conciliatory as he proposed his path to a better state, he drew the line at giving up ground over the repeal of House Bill 2, the law rolling back LGBT discrimination protections.
The state’s economy and reputation have been damaged by the widespread reaction that has played out since former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law a year ago. Cooper, a Democrat, said if the legislature approves a straightforward repeal of the law he will sign it the same day.
“I also raise this issue at the beginning because HB2 is the dark cloud hanging over our state of promise,” Cooper said in remarks provided ahead of time. “It drains the energy from what should be our work for the people of this state. Citizens from Cherokee to Chocowinity are sick of it and they are wondering when we’re going to cut away this heavy anchor weighing us down. Let’s do it this week. It’s time to move on.”
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HB2 struck down local nondiscrimination ordinances and requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate while they are in schools and other government facilities. Supporters of the law cite fears of safety and discomfort in restrooms. Opponents say it is discriminatory, and it prompted cancellations by businesses and entertainers.
The governor said there is common ground to be found on education, health care, drug abuse, creating jobs, raising the age for juvenile court proceedings, and disaster recovery.
“We will find this agreement because too much is at stake if we don’t,” Cooper said.
In his response to Cooper’s address, Senate leader Phil Berger blamed the governor for sabotaging attempts to repeal HB2.
“Gov. Cooper talks often of compromise, but works behind the scenes to kill real compromises,” said Berger, an Eden Republican who taped his remarks ahead of Cooper’s speech.
Berger, for the most part, talked about what he saw as Republican successes of the past six years, and called Cooper “the Left’s new champion,” and Cooper’s plan for the state “merely a retreat to our troubled past.”
Cooper’s audience was made up of members of the Senate and House, along with state Supreme Court justices, members of the Council of State and his Cabinet. His wife and three daughters sat in the gallery.
He invited six guests who personified his goals: Nashville police Chief Tom Bashore, for his program allowing opioid addicts to seek from police treatment without fear of arrest; Mackenzie Hinson, a 12-year-old Wayne County girl who founded Make A Difference Food Pantry and helped hurricane survivors; Jasmine Lauer, a Sanderson High School teacher in Raleigh who uses her own money to buy classroom supplies; Sabrina Peacock from Guilford County, a former participant in the N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship program who teaches third grade in a school with students from poor families; Wendell Tabb, a 30-year veteran teacher in Durham; and Charlotte Vick of a family farm in Wilson that has expanded its sweet potato crops to meet global demand.
Cooper pitched his budget proposal for its absence of tax increases and its socking away of hundreds of millions of dollars in the state’s rainy day fund, while still spending money on his goals.
Prospective businesses always ask about whether a skilled workforce is available, he said, and often the answer is no. His budget funds teacher pay increases and he said it takes steps toward putting the state in the top 10 best-educated states through early childhood education, increasing preschool enrollment, improving the high school graduation rate and ensuring more adults obtain advanced degrees.
“Yes, there’s a price tag on these investments in education,” Cooper said. “But now that the economy is rebounding, it’s time to make smart, strategic investments in our people.”
Bringing the film industry back to North Carolina with tax credits, creating tax breaks for the middle-class, encouraging renewable energy and expanding rural broadband were other budget topics he struck on.
“I promise to listen, to engage, to build consensus, to compromise when possible,” he said. “I promise to fight only when we can’t come to agreement or when you leave me no choice. I promise to make sure state government employs people who look like the people it represents.”
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed.