Working across the aisle, lawmakers deliver wins for North Carolina

North Carolina’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed on a number of measures this year, including the first biennial budget passed since 2017. 

AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (center), a Democrat, speaks before signing into law a major energy bill, listened to, from left, by Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, Democratic House Minority Leader Robert Reives, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, during an Executive Mansion ceremony in Raleigh, North Carolina, Oct. 13, 2021. The governor's signature on a budget last month capped a year in which he agreed with Mr. Moore and Mr. Berger that good-faith negotiations, rather than stalemate, were needed.

As the year draws to a close in politically divided North Carolina, hostilities have eased somewhat between the Democratic governor and majority-Republican lawmakers, both of whom recently agreed on a comprehensive budget more than three years after the last one was approved. 

Last month, second-term Gov. Roy Cooper signed a two-year, $53 billion state budget bill penned by GOP legislative leaders that was four and a half months late, and with lots inside for him to dislike, such as provisions that rein in his emergency powers and phase out corporate income taxes. And there are only plans to study the broad Medicaid expansion he’s sought for years, with no promise for an actual vote.

Two years ago, Governor Cooper vetoed the spending bill. But this year, there was enough in it to make him sign, including an avalanche of surplus funds that Republicans were happy to direct toward myriad projects across the state, including broadband expansion and water treatment plant repairs.

“The good outweighed the bad, and it was time to move forward,” Mr. Cooper said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There’s been a long time since we’ve had a budget, and [vetoing] it would have at that time stopped everything.”

North Carolina, the nation’s ninth-largest state, was the last to enact a budget for 2021.

The governor’s signature capped a year in which Mr. Cooper agreed with Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger that good-faith negotiations, rather than stalemate, were needed.

The two sides also passed compromise legislation requiring more students to return to in-person classes earlier this year; raising police accountability standards; and making North Carolina the first southeastern state to establish greenhouse gas emission reduction requirements. And they celebrated announcements that Apple will build its first East Coast campus and Toyota its first North American battery plant in the state, thanks in part to approved incentives.

“I think we’ve worked to try and make a difference,” Mr. Cooper said, and “we’ve come together on some historic legislation that’s going to make this state better.”

Conflict between Mr. Cooper and the General Assembly hasn’t ebbed fully. The governor used his veto stamp on 16 bills this year, and none of the vetoes have been overturned. His fights with the Republicans began even before he was sworn in. Just two days before taking office in January 2017, the then-outgoing attorney general began suing GOP legislators for passing laws shifting gubernatorial powers to themselves.

In 2019, Governor Cooper vetoed the budget bill, insisting that Medicaid expansion be negotiated. The GOP disagreed, and a conventional spending plan was never approved for the first time in recent state history. There was no government shutdown, yet many agencies operated at previous-year levels.

Then COVID-19 arrived, as did billions of dollars in federal relief. A 2020 election to determine control of state government didn’t change a thing: Governor Cooper won reelection, and Republicans maintained majorities that weren’t veto-proof.

Some Democratic legislators who were committed to upholding Mr. Cooper’s 2019 budget veto were determined this year to enact a plan. Massive amounts for building construction and other special projects sprinkled nearly everywhere in the budget appeared to give Republicans leverage, too.

“We had funding in there to touch the lives of every North Carolinian,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat who was one of the budget negotiators. Failing to enact a budget, Mr. Graham added, “would have not been ... good leadership.”

Governor Cooper managed enough concessions, particularly on education spending, to accept the final product.

“To his credit, he really wanted to make sure that we had a budget, and he was willing to sign a budget,” state Senator Berger said in a recent interview.

GOP Rep. Jason Saine, a top House budget writer, said that Mr. Cooper, who is term-limited from serving beyond 2024, may have felt pressure to sign a budget because he had never done so.

“The [game] board has changed a little bit. And I think anybody that seeks that office, whether Republican or Democrat, they’ve got to think about their legacy, too,” Mr. Saine said.

More than 50 Democrats ended up voting for the bill after Governor Cooper signaled he’d sign it. Criticism from Mr. Cooper’s allies was muted or directed at Republicans.

“After working for the past two years during the pandemic with no raises and no state budgets, educators have every reason to be disappointed,” North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a video. The 5% average pay raises for teachers, for example, was only half what Mr. Cooper had sought.

Mac McCorkle, a Duke University instructor and former adviser to North Carolina’s two previous Democratic governors, said it was a “close call” but believes Mr. Cooper did the right thing.

“While the die-hard partisans want a bitter fight to the end – on both sides – a lot of other people, people who voted for Roy Cooper, think that the governor should be cooperative, and should collaborate, and that budgets should be signed,” Mr. McCorkle said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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