Opinion

A look at Gov. Cooper’s doggedly impressive start

cseward@newsobserver.com

As the national pundits weigh in on President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office and the General Assembly passes its self-imposed crossover deadline for legislation, it’s worth considering how Gov. Roy Cooper has fared in his first 100+ days on the job.

He reached that threshold a couple of weeks ago with little fanfare.

The stage for his first term was set early in January when he told a business audience that he had three immediate priorities — expand Medicaid, raise teacher pay to the national average, and repeal HB2.

Legislative leaders and right-wing pundits were apoplectic about his call for Medicaid expansion, filing a lawsuit to stop it and pointing to the uncertainty in Washington around health care as a compelling reason why expansion didn’t make sense.

Cooper stuck to his guns, pointing to the 500,000 uninsured people who would receive health care and the thousands of jobs that would be created. This spring more Republican states pushed for expansion and after the first version of Trumpcare failed in Congress a Republican member of the state House introduced his own version of Medicaid expansion for North Carolina.

Cooper laid out his plan in February for raising teacher pay 10 percent over the next two years. A couple of weeks later he released his full budget recommendations, a reasonable proposal that starts to repair the damage done in the last few years to public schools, higher education, early child programs and other vital state institutions.

Cooper didn’t call for any tax increases or general tax cuts, but did propose restoring a childcare tax credit lawmakers abolished in 2013.

Senate leaders responded by passing an $850 million tax cut with most of it going to the top 20 percent of income earners and leaving the state without the resources its needs to make desperately needed investments in education and human services.

If the Senate plan is adopted, that will bring the annual tax break for the wealthiest one percent of the people in the state since 2013 to more than $20,000.

The differences between Cooper and Republican leaders could not be clearer and he reinforced them in an April speech where he asked another business audience to help him convince lawmakers to abandon their massive tax giveaways and instead make the investment the state needs.

Then there is HB2 where Cooper receives more mixed reviews. It’s true that the compromise he reached with legislative leaders to partially repeal it did convince the NCAA and the ACC to return championship events to the state, but the plan bans local governments from passing anti-discrimination protections for their LGBTQ residents for almost four years and leaves transgender people without the legal authority to use the restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

Cooper says it was the best he can do given the intractable position of the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate but that doesn’t make it right. He has, however, vowed to fight for statewide protections for LGBTQ North Carolinians and that’s a promise he must keep.

Overall though, it adds up to a fairly impressive 100+ days for the new administration with greater promise ahead.

Legislators are still trying to take his power away and still insisting on more tax cuts for the rich, but they are also talking about Medicaid expansion and fighting for a larger teacher raise than Cooper is proposing.

That is not to suggest that North Carolina is anywhere close to returning to its mildly progressive ways of the last decade — the regressive legislation is still rolling out of the General Assembly every day — but at least now there’s a powerful counterweight in the governor’s office with a different vision of North Carolina’s future than the one held up by the folks who have been in charge in Raleigh for the last four years.

The rest of Cooper’s term may be defined by how well he marshals the people of North Carolina to help him in his quest to turn things around.

There are limits to inside game in Raleigh. He must still play it on occasion but it’s time to take his case more directly to the people.

That’s where the real power is and who will ultimately hold the General Assembly accountable.

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