Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, had no realistic hope of successfully vetoing the Republican-led legislature’s budgets his first two years in office. But that will change this year, after Democrats erased the GOP’s supermajorities in the 2018 midterms.
So when Cooper unveiled his budget proposal on Wednesday, he said he thinks lawmakers will have to pay more attention to what he’s calling for.
“I know I won’t get everything I asked for in this budget,” Cooper said at a news conference. “But I do believe there is leverage.”
The budget proposal includes raises for teachers and state workers in 2019 and 2020, help for college students and the uninsured, and dozens of economic-development projects around the state.
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However, a number of Republican legislators criticized Cooper for not working more closely with them on his budget proposals.
“After speaking for months about the importance of collaboration, Governor Cooper didn’t bother sharing his budget with anybody in the legislature before his press conference,” three senators said in a joint statement issued by Senate leader Phil Berger’s office.
“This is not a serious budget proposal,” they added. “It is a political document that seems designed to cater to the Governor’s tax-and-spend base that put us in a hole ten years ago.”
The statement was attributed to Republicans Sens. Harry Brown of Onslow County, Kathy Harrington of Gaston County and Brent Jackson of Sampson County.
Cooper’s budget did not call for any tax hikes, even though he has frequently criticized corporate tax cuts passed by the General Assembly in recent years. And he said that he wants to have a back-and-forth with the Republican-controlled legislature to see if they can reach a compromise on the budget and avoid a veto showdown.
“I’m ready to listen to their ideas,” Cooper said. “But over the next few months we must make every attempt to work toward these long-term goals.”
One of Cooper’s biggest requests is something he has been asking for ever since taking office in January 2017 — Medicaid expansion. Republican lawmakers have resisted that idea in the past, but some have indicated they’re open to debating the topic this year.
Cooper said he wouldn’t necessarily veto the legislature’s budget if it doesn’t include Medicaid expansion, since it could be done in a separate bill, but he considers it a top priority for this year’s legislative session.
“I think Medicaid expansion is critical to the future of North Carolina,” Cooper said. His budget estimates that it would give coverage to more than 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians, and lead to a savings just for state government of tens of millions of dollars a year, as Medicaid picks up the cost of some state-funded health-care services.
Cooper called for a 9.1 percent average raise for teachers spread out over the next two years. The News & Observer reported more details of his education budget on Tuesday.
On Wednesday he also called for a raise for other state employees that would be 1.5 percent or $500 a year, whichever is bigger, for the next two years. Some other state employees, like law enforcement officers, prison workers and low-paid school workers like custodians and bus drivers, would also receive an additional $500 raise next year.
Additionally, his budget would set aside $20 million for state agencies to bring salaries in highly competitive jobs up to market rates, to keep the state from losing top talent to the private sector.
Retired state workers wouldn’t get a cost-of-living raise in Cooper’s budget, but they would get a one-time bonus of 2 percent.
Cooper also proposed a number of programs that would help young people, like giving extra money to colleges for scholarships as well as emergency grants that students could apply for so unforeseen expenses like medical bills or car repairs wouldn’t force them to drop out of school.
Cooper’s budget would also increase the number of summer-school classes in colleges and universities, and create summer-school-specific scholarships. Charlie Perusse, Cooper’s budget director who previously was the UNC System’s chief operating officer, said this will help low-income students who are trying to graduate early, as well as helping academically struggling students get back on track.
“This is something that was the No. 1 priority of the university system, and we’re really proud of it,” he said.
Cooper also reiterated his call for tuition-free community college, which the legislature has declined to approve in the past but which Cooper said he thinks is a good pro-business idea, given the skills gap for in-demand jobs like nurses.
“It gives employers the people they need,” Cooper said.
While Medicaid expansion is the main part of Cooper’s health care platform, it wasn’t the only issue his budget proposal tackled. He also called for expanding treatment and recovery options for people addicted to opioids.
Cooper also proposed additional money for programs that help children. Those include expanding NC Pre-K and the Smart Start program, expanding the state’s ability to find and help abused children, and creating subsidies for low-income parents to afford child care if they are working, getting job training or looking for work.
Cooper would also create dozens of new state health care jobs in substance abuse and mental health areas. Most would be at Broughton Hospital in Morganton, one of three state-run mental hospitals.
Citing the GenX pollution scandal and other environmental issues, Cooper proposed expanding the budgets for various environmental trust funds, as well as setting aside more than $10 million for water testing, clean energy projects and more.
Cooper previously signed an executive order holding the state to the climate change goals outlined in the Paris Accord, and one clean energy proposal in his budget is to set up centers at universities around the state that could consult with public and private entities on going green.
His budget would also create new jobs for people who would visit farms and help the farmers make sure they’re not polluting or breaking any other environmental regulations.
“We are pleased that the governor’s budget proposal recognizes the need to address some of the significant threats to North Carolina’s water and public health — like chemical contaminants and industrial hog waste — and we hope the leadership in the legislature will recognize this need as well,” said Brian Buzby, executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, in a written statement.
Savings and cuts
The state is expecting to have a budget surplus, and Cooper didn’t call for spending all of it. His budget would put $400 million into savings over the next two years.
Cooper’s budget would also cut some state programs — for example, phasing out the controversial Opportunity Scholarships program, which pays for families that qualify to send kids to private schools — but Perusse said the budget doesn’t try to find extra revenue by asking the legislature to undo recent tax cuts, or by moving money around.
“It doesn’t borrow from special funds,” Perusse said. “There’s no budget gimmicks in here. There’s no tax increases.”
Cooper also called for a nearly $4 billion bond to build new school, community college and university buildings, and to upgrade water and sewer lines. If the legislature approves that, voters would get the final say.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is already supporting a nearly $2 billion bond for similar purposes. Cooper said doubling that amount wouldn’t harm the state’s credit rating. He said it would help in the long term by improving and expanding education facilities, and would help in the short term by creating construction jobs.
Perusse said the state has the capacity to take on $10 billion in debt, and while “you would never want to borrow that much,” the push for borrowing $4 billion in a bond would be less than half that limit.
Between expanding broadband internet, helping cities get grants to update their water systems, and supporting tourism and economic development projects outside major cities, Cooper said his budget will help rural areas.
Data from his office shows that even though North Carolina has had nearly 9 percent job growth since the Great Recession, that’s largely because of Charlotte and the Triangle, and many areas of the state, like Rocky Mount, Hickory and Greensboro, have actually lost jobs.
Cooper said expanding broadband would help kids in rural communities get the same advantages with school work that others have, and it would also help people take advantage of technologies like telemedicine that could save them time and money with health care.
His budget also identified 68 potential economic development projects, largely to improve small-town downtowns. He also called for several larger projects, like renovating the Rockingham Motor Speedway and making various improvements throughout Eastern North Carolina, including a marine industrial park in the northeast and renovations to the Global TransPark, a state-run shipping hub in Kinston.
He also proposed a program that could help rural communities attract companies to their areas, by giving them lower job-creation thresholds to offer companies money to relocate.
Cooper called it “a new economic strategy” reflecting that “communities need our help to cross a significant hurdle.”