The Opinion Shop

Roy Cooper: When it comes to improving NC, we’ve lost four years

Roy Cooper sat down with the editorial board this week to talk about his run for governor. Here are my notes. They are not verbatim.

Q: Why are you running?

ROY COOPER: It only took about six months of Governor McCrory being in office for me to realize I needed to run for governor. We need a North Carolina that works for everybody and invests in public education. We need a governor who puts facts and data in front of partisan ideology, and that’s what’s happening right now. I think people are ready for a change, and I’m excited about this race.

Q: How do you feel about the polls showing you ahead?

COOPER: The only one that counts is on Nov. 8, but we’d rather be ahead than behind. This is going to be a hard-fought 60-plus days because the future of our state is at stake and nothing less.

Q: What do you see as the most damaging thing Gov. McCrory has done?

COOPER: It’s hard to pick one. Clearly you start with public education and the choice to provide corporate tax giveaways to those at the top instead of investing in public education, and that means cradle to college, early childhood all the way up to our well-respected universities. Where we could be right now in these four years with the additional tax revenue that has been coming in vs where we are is sad. And it is not who we are as North Carolinians. Because we’ve got public education not only in our constitution but in our DNA as a people. We’ve seen time and again tax giveaways instead of investment in public education.

There are many others, such as the refusal to expand Medicaid. That’s one example of putting partisan ideology in front of the best interest of the state and ahead of jobs and schools. We’ve seen it with HB2. There’s a long list of issues where political ideology trumps facts, data and the best interest of North Carolina.

Q: When you’re going about the state, do you hear from business leaders?

COOPER: I talk with them frequently, mostly CEOS. When I ask them, what do you need from North Carolina to succeed? What do you need to happen? The first thing is not to cut corporate tax. The first thing they tell me is to provide the trained workforce who can perform the jobs that I create. That is the No. 1 request of CEOS of companies that we want with good-paying jobs, and that’s the challenge now. The governor touts improved employment, but what jobs are being created? We have to have a well-trained work force to get companies to expand and provide those kinds of job. That’s why they come to North Carolina because of the universities and tech centers. That’s why they are here because of a trained workforce. We have to make that investment across the state. I believe we’ve lost four years.

Most people don’t feel improvement in the economy. Most people are working longer and harder and for less money than they were before the recession. The statistics bear that out. Real wage growth for middle income families is not occurring. We hear that anecdotally. You certainly hear it from educators, from workers who do manufacturing jobs. You hear it from state employees. Across the board, most people in the middle class have not seen a Carolina comeback, have not seen an economic improvement. Statistics show most of that going to those at the top, and on top of that the tax giveaways instead of tax cuts for middle class further accentuates the problems out there. A college education is getting more expensive. I have a jobs plan we’re going to work to implement that helps people get hold of college debt and encourages people to get this kind of training hey need. We’ve got to understand not everybody needs to go to a four-year college or wants to to get the kind of job they need. About 38 percent of the people have advanced degrees past high school. We need to increase that. Manufacturing is not dead. It’s changed significantly. The skills you need for manufacturing jobs are more refined and require more training. There are jobs out there. Companies want to hire people. We just have to get them ready. You can make a good living. We’ve got a plan. Once you leverage Pell grants and federal money, we can provide community college tuition for all students as long as they’re performing at a certain level. We’re going to work with the community college system to establish a plan. Richmond County right now is providing tuition as long as they leverage all federal money. If Richmond County can do it, North Carolina can do it.

Q: How do you feel about the Economic Development Partnership? Would you keep it?

COOPER: It’s not working like it should. What I will do is a quick assessment of how it is working, and we’ll make a quick decision about what we need to do in economic development. It’s critical. From an outside perspective, there is a great frustration. It took a couple years even to set up. Much of the time in the Department of Commerce was spent with infrastructure and raising money to fund the public-private partnership instead of going out and recruiting and doing the things we need to do improve the economy of our state. Now many local economic developers are frustrated. They don’t know who to talk to. You have the secretary of commerce, you have the head of the public-private partnership, you have the executive director of the public-private partnership and you have the governor’s office. There’s a lot of confusion out there.

We’re going to quickly assess this. I’m not going to eliminate it just because my predecessor put it in. It’s not going to be a political analysis. I do think the Department of Commerce needs to be streamlined. We need to hire the best people out there selling this incredible asset, North Carolina. We have a great state. We just have to sell it. We’re in global competition.

We’ll streamline it so it’s effective, so it’s coordinated with rural counties and can sell strengths of the areas of our state and remembering that many of the jobs are going to come from businesses already here. 98 percent of jobs come from small businesses. We have an incredible entrepreneurial and innovation economy in this state that’s beginning to work. One of the problems we’ve seen is the uncoordinated effort of the Department of Commerce coupled with HB2, which has created an obstacle for many entrepreneurs and innovators. Many people choose where they want to live before they start their business.

Q: Are there any benefits to the partnership?

COOPER: Supposedly it was sold as a way to be more nimble and to act and react quickly. From the outside, I’ve not seen evidence of that. There was also an assertion that potentially with a public-private partnership, we could pay economic recruiters more money to come into the process. We’re going to have to analyze those two things. I’m concerned that there are too many chefs in the kitchen. But I’m going to reserve judgment until we’ve have a quick analysis of it. We don’t want to spend a long time reorganizing the Department of Commerce and suffer the same problems we’ve seen.

Q: If you’re governor, you still will probably have a Republican-controlled General Assembly. Will we go back to the days of Bev Perdue? How will you work with them?

COOPER: It will be important to know what kind of representatives and senators are elected to the General Assembly and being able to put together coalitions of representatives and senators to sustain the vetoes that the new governor would put forth. That’s an important perspective. If you can veto legislation and it stays vetoed, then you have leverage to negotiate. We have to wait for the outcome of this election. Regardless, I’ve got a history of being able to work with Republicans. You have to build consensus and find areas of agreement. When I was the Senate Democratic majority leader in the late 90s, the House was Republican. We spent a lot of time with our sleeves rolled up negotiating things like Smart Start, teacher pay, welfare reform, taxes, and we got good things done for North Carolina. We found ways to expand Smart Start to all 100 counties, we found ways to get teacher pay up to 21 in the country. I believe there are a lot of Republicans who support education and want to pay teachers more. A lot are certainly advertising that. If we have a governor who has a vision of where he or she wants to go, who has the ability to coordinate business and others in the community to put pressure on them and to be unafraid to share the credit, we can get some things done. It takes a real understanding of the issues. I can ignore the personal insults and partisan sniping, but when it comes to governing and enacting public policy, we’ve got to forget all that, forget all the name calling and sit down at the table and say, OK, where do we agree and go from there?

A lot of things we can do from the executive side. Putting people at the Department of Environmental Quality who actually want to keep our air and water clean would be a good start. Appoint people who understand the issues. I believe we can find a way to expand Medicaid. I believe we have to. We’ve had other conservative governors out there even though they might have disagreed with public policy direction there, they realized the money is only going to go to other states. These governors realized we have to put aside ideology here.

We’ve got to find a way to do it. There’s a waiver pending a DHHS right now in Washington. There are a lot of ways to negotiate around that Medicaid waiver and use it as leverage to gain expansion. There’s a lot consensus in the business community on how expansion will help. We’ll have a new president at that point. Hopefully we can get political ideology pushed aside.

Whatever we need to to make sure we get this thing done is going to be critical.

Q: What do you say to critics who say the attorney general is not doing his job?

COOPER: We’re fighting for consumers every single day, before the Utilities Commission, standing up to big banks and pharmaceutical companies when we need to on behalf of consumers. We have recovered millions of dollars in Medicaid fraud for taxpayers. For every one dollar appropriated to our office from the General Assembly, we return $4 to the state. We’ve handled thousands of criminal cases. Over the last four years, the General Assembly has passed laws that pushed the bounds of the constitution. Our office has stepped up and done it’s job, but doing your job doesn’t mean appealing every case to the U.S. Supreme Court. When you have three federal circuit court judges who tell you that a law with surgical precision has intentionally discriminated against African-Americans, it’s time to stop and reassess what has been done. That’ s a good decision for any lawyer representing a client. We represented the state for three years on that case.

Q: How much has the administration spent on outside lawyers?

COOPER: Those figures exist from the General Assembly. Most of it has been unnecessary. Attorneys in the attorney general’s office are professionals. They take their cases seriously. They rely on the facts and the law, and they do their job.

Q: Would you move the SBI back?

COOPER: I want the SBI to be an independent law enforcement agency that’s free of undue influence. We’re unsure that anybody supported the move other than the governor and the leadership in the General Assembly. The sheriff’s association, police, district attorneys, across the board did not believe it was necessary. I’ll work with the GA to make sure the SBI is independent, and we’ll just have to see what turns out. iId want to do an analysis of the job they’re able to do now, talk to the director to see what kind of influence may or may not have occurred. You have to do an assessment. One of the problems is the move itself took a long time and was very disruptive in the law enforcement arena.

Q: How do you view state employees? Are they seat-warmers? How would you rate their morale?

COOPER: The morale of state employees is low. They do not believe they have taken part in any kind of economic recovery that’s happening across the country. Again, you have a choice of corporate tax giveaways and tax giveaways at the top at the expense of investing in our people and making sure you’re attracting the best. We’ll have budget proposals that increase state employee pay across the board. We’ll look at budget availability and what’s doable, but clearly that needs to be a priority along with raises for educators above corporate tax giveaways.

Q: What about the Rural Economic Development Center? 

COOPER: Having grown up in Rural Eastern North Carolina, it hurts to see the economic challenges that so many of our rural counties are facing. There are a lot more people looking for work in many of our counties than they were before the recession. Clearly the growth has occurred mostly in urban areas. But we don’t improve the economies of rural counties by tearing down the urban areas. We can’t get into dividing the pot. Expansion of Medicaid would help rural areas significantly. Many rural health care providers are depending on many patients being on Medicaid. Many of them are on edge right now. If we get it expanded, it would not only get people healthier but give rural areas a shot in the arm.

Investment in job training and tailoring it to the kinds of jobs we can attract to rural areas is another way is to improve small businesses. What’s happening with the rural center needs to be augmented. Providing loans, mentoring in rural areas is having a positive effect. There’s a lot we can do immediately that can help rural areas. There are no magic solutions, but we have to reach out because there are many people hurting right now.

We’re in a global war for talent. We want to bring in high quality workers that help us create those jobs for people here. Yes, we are certainly poised. Our great university system has been a real economic engine for us and helped attract these high tech jobs that help create other jobs for people. We need to continue to invest universities. I’ve been concerned about faculty and researcher retention at our universities. It’s a key issue that we’re facing right now, and it’s not just the pay, but it’s a concern by university faculty about the direction of our state, whether our state has a real commitment to public education, whether we’re going to continue to pass these right-wing social agenda laws that send the wrong signal to people all over the country, making it more difficult for universities to attract and retain talent. One of the reasons this election is so important is that it sends the signal not only to North Carolina but across the country that this is not who we are as North Carolinians. We are something different than what has been projected by the governor and the General Assembly.

We need to stop this decrease that continues to occur in the corporate tax and income tax for those at the top. Tax breaks should go to the middle class, but I think now we need to turn our attention to investment in public education, investment in health care, mental health, turn our attention to investment in our people. I think the economy is poised, at least the tax revenue coming in. They have over a billion and half in a rainy day fund. They’re continuing to build it, not only doing tax giveaways to those at the top but building up the rainy day fund in excess of what’s necessary for the state.

Instead of doing that, we could invest in our people. Immediate tax code changes are going to be difficult with this General Assembly. I’d want to stop the giveaways at the top and stop the increases on the middle class. If you do an analysis of the tax changes signed by Governor McCrory, look at it holistically, you’re going to see a significant deduction for those at the top and corporations, but middle income and working class people having a little bit of an increase, which is wrong.

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