Politics & Government

‘He’s just not that into you.’ Texts to Roy Cooper become fodder for budget debate

Republican lawmakers are criticizing Gov. Roy Cooper’s approach to state budget negotiations, highlighting text messages Sen. Phil Berger sent to Cooper, who didn’t text back.

Records obtained by the N.C. Insider through a public records request show that since June 24, the Republican Senate leader has sent the Democratic governor three text messages concerning the ongoing budget impasse — including a July 11 text message while Berger was in Germany for a conference.

“Hi Governor, I understand you sent me a letter last night,” the July 11 text message from Berger begins. “I’m available to speak with you about the budget if you’ll let me know a good time.”

The texts were attempts to set up meetings to discuss the state budget in-person, or answer questions about what would need to be included in the state budget for him to sign it. Cooper’s office said it responded to all three — not by text, but with a letter, a conference call and a call between staff members.

After the Insider reported that Cooper appears to have “ghosted” Berger, state Sen. Rick Gunn, an Alamance County Republican, issued a news release comparing the situation to a scene from the movie “Say Anything,” in which John Cusack’s character plays the Peter Gabriel song “In Your Eyes” from a boombox outside his love interest’s window.

“Sadly, Governor Cooper just isn’t that into Senator Berger,” says the news release, which was headlined, “He’s Just Not That Into You” and distributed to the news media.

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A news release from state Sen. Rick Gunn.

Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner responded on Twitter by criticizing Gunn’s statement and the Insider story it referenced. “This is the silliest and most embarrassing thing yet — for both Senate GOP and The Insider,” she tweeted. “Our office responded every time the legislators have reached out. Gov sent a compromise 32 days ago & we await their counteroffer. This is a state budget, not the Bachelor.

“GOP legislators want to create any type of absurd distraction they can so people won’t notice that they refuse to send a counteroffer to our compromise & keep trying to override even though they don’t have the votes. The Insider did them a favor on this one.”

Weiner challenged the accuracy of the story, arguing that the governor’s office did indeed respond to Berger’s message. She said in an email that the latest Berger text sent on July 18 elicited a response because Cooper’s top lobbyist, Lee Lilley, called Berger chief of staff Andrew Tripp “to respond at a staff level.” Because Cooper himself did not respond to Berger’s message, the Insider stands behind the accuracy of its original report.

On July 18, Berger texted Cooper. “I understand that your office has told the press that you do not have any ultimatums regarding the budget. That is a welcome development,” the text read. He then asks for confirmation that Cooper would sign a compromise budget even if it didn’t include Medicaid expansion. “I think we can make real progress here. I’m still committed to the special session on health care access.”

This year’s state budget process has been a drawn out, “he said, he said” situation as legislative leaders and Cooper send letters back and forth and argue about the process over social media. The state has been operating on the previous year’s fiscal budget since July 1, so there are no concerns about a government shutdown.

House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters on Thursday he intends to continue to work to get the required three-fifths majority to override Gov. Cooper’s veto. The House Republicans need seven Democrats to vote with them to override the veto if all 120 members are present. “I’m going to continue to try and convince the Democrats that this is a great budget that they should vote for,” he said. Moore said he has not spoken to Cooper in a few weeks.

On Wednesday, 51 of the 55 House Democrats sent a letter to Berger and Moore calling on them to negotiate with Cooper. “We are committed to sustaining Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of the State Budget,” the letter says.

Texting records

It is unusual for a legislator to release his or her text messages. Often they claim legislative privilege or confidentiality, which is used as an exception to the state’s public records laws.

The Insider requested all communication between Berger and Cooper from July 1 through Aug. 8, including call logs, text messages, emails and letters. Berger’s general counsel, Brian Fork, said in a response to the Insider’s request that some of the records may not meet the definition of public records as defined by state law and “may be subject to statutory legislative confidentiality, as you have requested production of documents through and in possession of legislative staff.” However, “in the interest of transparency” Berger’s office provided copies of the documents to the Insider “regardless of whether they constitute public records.”

A day later, the N.C. Democratic Party filed a public records request seeking other budget correspondence from legislative leaders. “Since legislative Republicans have decided to begin releasing records including text messages in ‘the interest of transparency,’ the North Carolina Democratic Party has sent several public records requests to Republican leaders,” it said in a news release.

The party shared letters signed by party research director Elisabeth Hill seeking any and all correspondence from the office of Berger and Moore that relates to the budget veto override vote scheduling, Medicaid expansion and the proposed relocation of the Department of Health and Human Services to Granville County, which is part of the vetoed budget bill.

Asked about the records request, Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said “if this latest political stunt is any indication, the governor’s mishandling of his ridiculous Medicaid-or-nothing ultimatum is starting to fray some nerves. As with every public records request, we’ll conduct a review and respond in accordance with the law.”

Moore spokesman Joseph Kyzer said “we received the records request and I can be clear about House Republicans’ position on these items: DHHS should move to Granville County just as DMV is being moved to the governor’s home region in Nash County, the speaker will hold the veto override when the votes are secured, and we are steadfastly committed to passing the $24 billion state budget separately from any consideration of Medicaid expansion.”