Politics & Government

Gov. Roy Cooper tells lawmakers he wants school bond, Medicaid expansion

Gov. Roy Cooper: ‘The people of North Carolina are determined for us to work together.”

Watch a portion of NC Governor Roy Cooper's State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly Monday night, Feb. 25, 2019.
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Watch a portion of NC Governor Roy Cooper's State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly Monday night, Feb. 25, 2019.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday proclaimed the state determined to overcome the ravages of hurricanes, help cities and rural communities, and support public schools.

Cooper used “determined” as the theme of his second State of the State address and the first since Democrats added enough seats in the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly to uphold the Democratic governor’s vetoes.

In the speech delivered Monday night in the state House chambers, Cooper spoke of efforts over the two years he’s been in office to attract jobs to the state and connect workers with employers. He recounted bipartisan efforts to recover from Hurricane Florence.

He struck a tone of bipartisanship and advocated for debates in good faith.

“I believe we have broad agreement on what we want for our state,” he said. “We need to seek common ground and build solutions upon it.”

Cooper invited a teacher, farmers, a pediatrician, and a state trooper to Raleigh to illustrate his points about education, help for rural communities, Medicaid expansion, and heroism in the hurricane. Lawmakers applauded the guests as Cooper introduced them.

“The storm showed us it’s also time to come together to meet other challenges that people face every day across our state,” Cooper said. “And we have to bring that same determination to every challenge.

“To start, we must come together and insist our public schools come first. We must come together to create opportunities in our cities and our rural communities.

“We must come together to get health care for hundreds of thousands of working people with no insurance. That’s the determination we need to make North Carolina truly excellent.”

Watch a portion of NC Governor Roy Cooper's 2019 State of the State speech.

Democratic women, including members of Cooper’s cabinet, wore white. White clothes recalled the suffrage movement. Democratic congresswomen wore white to President Trump’s State of the Union earlier this month.

Republican women and Kristin Cooper, the governor’s wife, wore red.

After the speech, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said Cooper’s call for bipartisanship was encouraging, but Cooper hasn’t shown he’s good at it. Forest, a Republican, is expected to run for governor next year when Cooper seeks re-election.

“Certainly, the charge at the end was about bipartisanship. We’ll see,” Forest said.”The governor hasn’t been great at that for the first couple years here trying to figure out how to work with people. I think that’s what the people want, I think he’s right. I think the people want us to work together and come up with solutions. We obviously have vast differences in those solutions.”

School bond

Cooper urged more support for public education and early childhood education, and said schools spending should take priority over tax breaks.

“Although we disagree on some issues, I believe there is bipartisan agreement that education will succeed with a good teacher in every classroom and a good principal in every school,” Cooper said. “Our message to educators should be clear: we trust you to educate our children. We’re putting our money where our trust is.”

He also supported a bond referendum for school construction.

The Republican-led Senate passed a bill last week that would have the state pay for public school construction out of the state budget for nine years. They offered it as an alternative to the $1.9 billion bond Republican House Speaker Tim Moore has been promoting. Moore has not filed a bill for the bond referendum, which he proposed would go on the 2020 ballot, the N&O has reported.

“K through 12 schools need at least $8 billion in new construction and renovations,” Cooper said.

He called a bond a “smart way” to build.

“It gets hammers swinging all across the state, and still leaves money for good teachers and principals. This session, let’s have the people vote on a strong school construction bond.”

Medicaid expansion

Cooper has made Medicaid expansion a priority, but has not been able to convince the legislature to pass it. Expansion would allow from 300,000 to 500,000 adults to use government health insurance, with the federal government paying most of the cost. Under state law, Cooper cannot move to expand Medicaid without the legislature’s consent.

Cooper advocated Medicaid expansion in his speech, saying, “it’s time” to provide insurance to uninsured working people.

The speech drew applause throughout, but the loudest standing ovation came from Democrats when Cooper talked about Medicaid expansion.

“There are neighbors in your hometowns who are working two jobs that don’t provide any health insurance,” Cooper said. “Doctors and nurses across our state see it every day. Are we willing to help them? It’s time.”

“Police chiefs and sheriffs say they’re overwhelmed by the wreckage of opioid overdose and people who need treatment — not jails. Are we willing to help them? It’s time. Business owners say they’re tired of paying higher premiums to cover the cost of treating the uninsured in emergency rooms. Are we willing to help them? Well, it’s time.”

Prominent House Republicans have promoted their own idea for filling what they call the “coverage gap,” by offering health insurance to working people who would pay a premium. Under their proposal, the federal government and hospitals in the state would cover most of the cost. That bill has not been formally introduced this year, but legislators are talking about it.

House Democratic leader Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, said the speech was positive.

“There was some interesting dynamics on some of the things where you saw House members stand up on both sides and Senate members not,” Jackson said.

“I think we’re starting to see that some of these issues now are more House versus Senate positions, and how that will work out,” Jackson said. “So it will be a very interesting session, I think.”

Senate leader Phil Berger has said he has not seen an idea for expanding government insurance that the state could afford.

Republican response

In his formal response to Cooper’s speech, Berger touted the virtues of “low taxes, reasonable spending, and common-sense regulations.”

While Berger said he hoped for bipartisanship this session, he bashed a Wake County Superior Court judge’s decision last week that declared that two voter-passed constitutional amendments on voter ID and an income tax cap were unconstitutional, and he also spoke of Cooper’s “unchecked power” to make court appointments.

“That Democratic judge ruled that the entire Republican state legislature was unconstitutional for more than one-and-a-half years based on legal reasoning that, to my knowledge, has never before been sustained in the United States,” Berger said in remarks prepared for delivery.

“An unrestrained judiciary advancing political theories and political agendas that nobody elected a judge to bring about is a fundamental threat to the ideas our state and this country were founded upon. This threat is compounded by the governor’s unchecked power to appoint whomever he chooses to the courts.

Voters last fall turned down a constitutional amendment to give the legislature more say over filling judicial vacancies.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Monday night, Feb. 25, 2019 in Raleigh.

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.
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