Attorney General Roy Cooper outlined the basics of what could become his economic development platform in his yet-unannounced run for governor in 2016 as keynote speaker at the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce last week.
Although he was there as a local-boy-makes-good – born and raised in Nash County, with longtime family ties to the region – the Democratic attorney general also took a few swipes at the Republicans who are running state government.
“Right now it’s not clear that state leaders understand the challenges of rural communities,” Cooper said.
The Thursday night speech mostly focused on the topic of most concern to the 375 annual dinner event guests: the economy.
Despite the state’s overall unemployment rate dropping, Cooper said, wages are down, and average income has continued to drop. Nineteen rural counties have unemployment of more than 7 percent, he said, with nearby Edgecombe County at 9.8 percent.
“Our state leaders must realize that our great cities like Charlotte and Raleigh can be even greater if the areas around them improve their economies,” he said.
Cooper said it was a bad idea to nearly demolish the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and cut funding for regional development partnerships. He said incentives, while controversial, are necessary but have been “cut to the bone.”
Gov. Pat McCrory’s new transportation plan, which gives priority to road and transit projects that cut congestion and promote economic development, sets up an unnecessary competition with fast-growing cities, which rural areas will ultimately lose, Cooper said.
And the attorney general said it was a bad idea not to accept billions of dollars in federal financing to expand Medicaid coverage with already-paid taxes, noting that Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Jan Brewer of Arizona have done it.
“The governor and the legislature must get this done,” he said.
Cooper also said it was vital to pay teachers substantially more, as part of broader ideas for improving education. He called for more investment in homegrown ideas and a commitment to bolstering farming and manufacturing.
In a statement Saturday, McCrory communications director Josh Ellis said, “It’s shocking that the attorney general wants to go back to the Easley-Perdue years of good ol’ boy and good ol’ girl policies instead of a plan that takes politics out of road building and was approved by an overwhelming majority of lawmakers on both sides of the aisles.”