Cooper gives first State of the State address, Berger responds

The governors speech to a joint session of the legislature focused on education, health, jobs and repealing H.B. 2 as he called for putting politics aside and standing on common ground

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
FILE PHOTO:Gov. Roy Cooper gives the State of the State address at the North Carolina House of Representatives on March 13.

RALEIGH —— In his first official presentation to the North Carolina General Assembly, Gov. Roy Cooper was introduced by Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) Monday night to give the State of the State address. Cooper’s speech focused on familiar themes, calling for immediate repeal of House Bill 2, raising teacher pay and education funding, and expanding access to health care. Cooper said the prospects for North Carolina are promising, pointing to robust population growth and an unmatched quality of life, but quickly pivoted to a talking point that was a staple of his campaign.

“Our people are welcoming, but some of our laws are not,” said Cooper. “I’m going to say this first thing because of the urgency and to go ahead and get it out of the way: tonight I call on the legislature once again to repeal House Bill 2.”

Beyond the repeated demand for repeal, Cooper focused his address on education, health and improved prosperity of the middle class.”

I want North Carolinians to be better educated, healthier and have more money in their pockets,” said Cooper.

He went on to highlight areas of his proposed budget that address his priorities, some of which occupy “common ground” with the Republican legislative majority. Job recruitment, raising teacher pay, fighting the opioid crisis, boosting infrastructure and recovering from natural disasters are issues Cooper believes there to be bipartisan support for, saying, “They’re priorities we all share.”As far as education, the governor reiterated his proposal to raise teacher pay by an average of 10 percent over the next two years, as well as providing stipends for classroom supplies and scholarships for students that excel.

Proposing an education and workforce program called NC GROW (Getting Ready for Opportunities in the Workforce), Cooper advocated for free community college for students that get good grades and leverage other sources of tuition assistance.

“Yeah, there’s a price tag for these investments in education, but now that the economy is rebounding it’s time to make smart strategic investments in our people,” asserted Cooper before framing funding and taxing choices in a rich vs. poor narrative. “We cannot sacrifice education at the altar of even more corporate tax cuts or giveaways that are mostly for the wealthiest. Changes to our tax codes need to focus on relief for our working families, not corporations and millionaires.”

Cooper suggested ways to bring jobs and prosperity back for working families, such as reinstating film incentive tax credits, funding early childhood education, expanding rural broadband access, and investing more in renewable energy.

“Our economy is recovering, but our unemployment rate is still 5.3 percent, the same as last January and slightly above the national average,” he said.

While he didn’t mention Medicaid directly, Cooper also made pleas for expanded health care coverage in the state.

Finally, Cooper spoke to issues that have earned consensus among the divided branches of government, namely fighting the opioid crisis and continuing disaster relief efforts for those affected by Hurricane Matthew. He closed out his address with an appeal for bipartisan cooperation, saying, “We must put politics aside and work together.”

While a handful of policy initiatives will certainly allow the governor and legislature to work together, the official response to the State of the State address given by N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) served to remind citizens of just how divided state government remains.

Berger began his response by remembering the last time he had the opportunity to offer such a retort to a Democratic governor.”Six years ago, Republicans had just assumed leadership of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century,” said Berger. “Former Speaker and current U.S. Senator Thom Tillis and I stood before you then to chart a new course for our state. Our vision was simple: trust more in the people of North Carolina, not in the institutions of government.”

Berger described the last six years as a series of kept promises, from lowering taxes and resurrecting the state’s fiscal health, to raising teacher pay and expanding access to education.”What would you think about a group of elected officials who kept those promises?” Berger asked. “And then, those promises worked. Because in the last six years, that is exactly what House and Senate Republicans have accomplished in our state.”

The Senate leader framed Cooper’s policies as a regression to what Republicans feel led the state awry in the first place.”Tonight we heard the left’s new champion, Roy Cooper, push their vision for the future of North Carolina,” said Berger. “Except it is not a vision for the future of North Carolina at all — it’s a mirage. It’s merely a retreat to our troubled past.”