State Politics

Roy Cooper’s first 100 days: Promises, lawsuits and budget proposals

Gov. Cooper says HB2 replacement bill is a compromise

Gov. Roy Cooper hosted a press conference after signing a compromise bill passed by he General Assembly on Thursday that replaces House Bill 2 but restricts anti-discrimination ordinances in cities and counties.
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Gov. Roy Cooper hosted a press conference after signing a compromise bill passed by he General Assembly on Thursday that replaces House Bill 2 but restricts anti-discrimination ordinances in cities and counties.

Roy Cooper hurried to be sworn into office, taking the oath of office as North Carolina’s governor at the earliest possible moment – midnight on Jan. 1 – instead of waiting another week for his formal inaugural ceremony.

Cooper’s 100th day in office is Monday. In a bit more than three months in office, he has run into a court setback in his effort to expand Medicaid, tried to fend off attempts by the General Assembly to reduce his power, and faced criticism from both the left and the right over a compromise to repeal and replace House Bill 2.

“The beginning wasn’t particularly auspicious,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “And I think the first 100 days has been kind of dominated by two things. The first is the separation of powers struggle ... and then the other of course is the struggle of HB2.”

Ken Eudy, Cooper’s senior adviser, emphasized what he said were more positive aspects of the Democratic governor’s first 100 days.

For instance, he said, Cooper is having the exact kind of debate he wants to have with lawmakers over teacher pay – arguing not over whether to raise it, but by how much.

The governor is also making progress on other campaign themes, Eudy said, like expanding access to pre-kindergarten, making community college tuition-free, getting state and federal funding for survivors of last fall’s Hurricane Matthew and prioritizing tax relief that he thinks will help the working class – like reinstating an income tax credit for child-care costs that the General Assembly got rid of in 2013.

None of that is yet a done deal, but Cooper included all those policies and more in the two-year budget proposal he released March 1.

“His priority is for North Carolinians to be healthier, more educated and have more money in their pockets,” Eudy said.

In a sign of the resistance Cooper may face from legislative Republicans, Senate leader Phil Berger countered Cooper’s first State of the State address last month with a response speech that called Cooper’s agenda “a mirage” and “a retreat to our troubled past,” and jabbed at him over his close race with former Gov. Pat McCrory.

“Across the state, Republican legislators received hundreds of thousands more votes than their Democratic opponents. Yet Roy Cooper, who squeaked into office by a mere 10,000 votes, has treated his election as a mandate to fight Republicans rather than an opportunity to work together,” Berger said in his response.

Among Cooper’s first actions was a plan to expand Medicaid health-insurance coverage, which required federal approval. Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore sued, contending the plan violated a 2013 state law. The issue is bottled up in court.

Slowing him down

Some issues that Cooper had hoped to focus on were forced onto the back burner by logistical hurdles, Eudy said.

Finding and vetting Cabinet secretaries took longer than usual. Eudy attributed that to a drawn-out recount of the election results followed by uncertainty surrounding a new law that required the appointees to get Senate approval, just like at the national level.

The legislature added that confirmation requirement in a post-election special session, along with a change making it harder for Cooper to replace hundreds of McCrory’s political appointees in state agencies.

The new limits on Cooper’s power, in what was already one of the nation’s weakest executive branches, have been only part of Cooper’s struggle to immediately assert his authority, Taylor said.

“You’ve seen on the HB2 thing that there are people in the Democratic base that aren’t too happy with him,” Taylor said. “But the narrow victory, the large Republican majorities in the General Assembly, don’t really give him room to maneuver.”

Republicans have already mustered the votes to override Cooper’s first veto, restoring partisan judicial elections.

Eudy noted that members of the same Republican-led legislature that got rid of Teaching Fellows forgivable loans for new teachers now agree with Cooper that the scholarship program should be brought back, even if they disagree on details. He said he has similar hopes for other issues, like tax credits for film projects and child care that Cooper wants to resurrect.

While last month’s HB2 compromise restricted local nondiscrimination protections until Dec. 1, 2020, Eudy predicted a future push for more sweeping changes to advance gay rights.

“I think that you will begin to see, after a decent interval, a conversation about securing statewide LGBT nondiscrimination protections,” Eudy said – in addition to protections for veterans and pregnant women, who also lack federal discrimination protections.

The News & Observer’s fact-checking partner, PolitiFact North Carolina, is keeping track of the progress Cooper is making on his campaign promises.

PolitiFact NC has created the Coop-O-Meter – similar to the Obameter and Trump-O-Meter that national PolitiFact reporters maintain – to keep track of dozens of promises Cooper made on the campaign trail.

For example, Cooper said if elected he would make college more affordable, help small businesses, reduce standardized testing and prevent further cuts to education funding.

The first round of updates to the Coop-O-Meter shows Cooper has focused on education issues, taxes and, of course, HB2.

For most of the governor’s promises that PolitiFact NC has rated, the results are incomplete, earning a rating of In The Works.

Fully repeal HB2

Cooper had promised during the campaign to “repeal HB2 and restore the worker protections that were taken away by Governor McCrory.”

Cooper’s deal with the legislature repealed the 2016 law and its bathroom rules, but the new law keeps a modified version of HB2’s ban on local ordinances regarding worker protections.

Rating: Compromise

Tuition-free community college

Cooper has called for making community college free for recent high school graduates – framing it as a way to deal with a growing skills gap between what employers need and what workers know how to do, especially in rural areas.

Cooper proposed using $19 million in lottery revenue to get the program started. That money would cover costs left over after a student uses other financial aid.

It would be based on a program in neighboring Tennessee, where the plans won approval from both a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Bill Haslem.

Rating: In The Works

Expand Pre-K

Cooper said he would expand NC Pre-K and direct more funding to Smart Start, a public-private partnership focused on early childhood education.

He proposed adding 4,000 seats to pre-kindergarten programs statewide, which would be enough to eliminate a waiting list for at-risk families. The pre-K expansion would cost $12 million annually, Cooper said. He proposed spending an additional $15 million annually on Smart Start.

It’s unclear if the legislature will go along with either idea.

Rating: In The Works

Improve child care quality

Cooper also said he’d create higher-quality child care programs.

He outlined a plan: go after a federal grant that would let the state hire a dozen new workers to provide training to child-care workers. It would cost $817,000 a year, he estimated.

Rating: In The Works

Child care tax credits

Child care is incredibly expensive, costing an average of nearly $17,000 for a North Carolina family with two kids as of 2015.

Restoring the credits would save taxpayers (and therefore cost the state) $52.5 million, Cooper estimated in his budget proposal.

Rating: In The Works

Film tax credits

Cooper promised to restore tax credits for film companies to shoot movies or TV shows in North Carolina.

It’s the sort of issue that doesn’t affect most people’s day-to-day lives but has attracted vocal interest groups on both sides.

Cooper proposed bringing the credits back, but not at quite the level they used to be. It remains to be seen if he’ll even get that.

Rating: In The Works

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran