RALEIGH – Roy Cooper is an experienced and capable politician. So far, his approval ratings are fine. But he’s hardly made of iron, or even Teflon. Inviting easy attacks on him is foolish. And in recent weeks, foolish is precisely the right description of the strategy the governor’s political team and partisan allies have pursued.
Understandably giddy about recovering the governor’s mansion in 2016, the North Carolina Democratic Party has been looking for “good news” stories to characterize Cooper’s first year in office. “NC sees recent flurry of economic expansion thanks to Gov. Cooper,” a party news release claimed in late December. “The ‘Jobs Governor’ has been hard at work advocating for our state and its citizens and our local economies since taking office.”
Oh? If Roy Cooper is our “Jobs Governor,” why has job creation slowed down under his administration?
According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, North Carolina added 75,000 net new jobs in 2017. Every new job is welcome, naturally, but North Carolina added 94,000 jobs in 2016, 101,000 jobs in 2015, and 95,000 jobs in 2014.
Expressed as an annual rate of employment growth, North Carolina’s gain of 1.7 percent in 2017 is a drop from the 2.2 percent rate in 2016. In fact, it is the lowest growth rate since 2011. Employment growth rates for the nation as a whole and the Southeastern region were also lower in 2017 than in 2016, but the drop wasn’t as pronounced as it was in our state.
Another standard measure of economic performance is gross domestic product. The data lag a bit more, but through the first nine months of 2017, North Carolina’s annualized, inflation-adjusted growth rate was just 1.6 percent, compared to an average of 2.4 percent for the nation and 2.3 percent for the Southeast.
Once again, that represents a markedly lower rate of growth during Cooper’s first year than the rates North Carolina experienced during Pat McCrory’s tenure as governor, when real GDP growth usually outpaced the national and regional averages. Indeed, in 2016 North Carolina’s real GDP surged by 2.9 percent, vs. a national average of 1.8 percent and regional average of 1.9 percent.
I’m not saying McCrory was personally responsible for all of North Carolina’s superior performance in past years, or that Cooper is personally responsible for all of North Carolina subpar performance in 2017. Governors aren’t that powerful. What I am saying is that there is no justification for the claim that North Carolina is growing faster and creating more jobs under Cooper.
Another unforced error came last week when the governor announced, finally, that his administration would issue permits to allow the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through Eastern North Carolina. Because the process took so long, hard-left opponents of the pipeline had reason to hope Cooper would say no. They were furious when he decided (correctly) to say yes.
In an attempt to placate them, however, Cooper made the ludicrous claim that his “goal for North Carolina is complete reliance on renewable energy” but that “[d]uring the time it takes to get us to a full renewable energy future, we will still need to rely on other fuels.” No sensible person, and I mean no one, truly believes North Carolina households and businesses can be fully powered by renewables at any time in the foreseeable future.
What’s worse, the governor accompanied the pipeline permit and his flight of fancy with a “memorandum of understanding” that the power companies would pay $58 million into an escrow account – out of which the Cooper administration will spend funds, by executive order and discretion, on “mitigation,” “economic development,” and “renewable energy projects” outside the General Assembly’s constitutional authority over appropriations.
Back in the 1990s, when Roy Cooper was a powerful state senator, legislative leaders abused the budget process with slush funds. Compelling private companies to finance a new slush fund is recklessly foolish. The governor and his team should be leading with their minds, not Cooper’s chin.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.