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GARY PEARCE COLUMN: Cooper maps an alternative path

North Carolina may go a third straight year without a new state budget. We definitely will go an 11th straight year without a budget written by Democrats.

Gary Pearce

What would such a creature look like? Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has shown us.

His plan is sweeping and starkly different from budgets passed by Republicans since 2011. Cooper would transform North Carolina’s healthcare, education, energy use, infrastructure, job training, pandemic assistance and approach to racial issues.

But few North Carolinians know that.

News tends to focus on the legislature; something newsworthy happens there nearly every day. Cooper isn’t one to pound the podium and command the cameras. He prefers patient, persistent persuasion with legislators.

The governor reiterated his “mission statement” in an email this month to supporters:

“I want a North Carolina where people are better educated, healthier, with more money in their pockets, and where there are more equitable opportunities for people to have lives of purpose and abundance. Every single day I come to work with this goal in mind.”

As political messages go, it’s somewhat clunky. But it’s clear. And Cooper has stuck to it consistently since he ran in 2016.

Senate Republicans, supported by four Democrats, passed their budget last month. (The Democrats’ districts would get a lot of money in the package.) The Senate budget is more of the same since 2011: more tax cuts for corporations, limited budget increases for public schools and paltry pay raises (3 percent over two years) for teachers.

The governor’s says his approach “means fighting for access to affordable, quality healthcare.” He would expand Medicaid healthcare coverage to a half-million more people: “It makes people healthier. It uses tax dollars wisely and reduces health care costs for businesses. It makes health care more fair. It reaches rural areas.”

“It means a commitment to solving our climate crisis and making our state more resilient in the face of increasing storms.” He would “expand access to clean energy technologies, invest in clean energy economic development, promote offshore wind, and build the clean energy workforce to catalyze North Carolina’s economy.”

“It means investing in public schools.” He wants “more children getting high quality pre-K and a healthy start at birth. More children who learn to read in elementary school. More children inspired to learn trades in middle school. And more well-paid educators who can guide children as well as adults getting trained for a second career.”

“And that means paying teachers more” – 10 percent raises over the next two years. Cooper would spend $1.5 billion of the $6.5 billion in surplus revenue to “meet (the state’s) constitutional obligation of ensuring every student has access to a sound basic education.”

In a time of heightened attention to racial issues, the governor says his vision “means fighting discrimination at every turn and promoting policies that make North Carolina a better, more inclusive place to live and work for everyone.”

He’d also make job training more affordable and available. He’d invest in infrastructure — from schools to bridges to broadband. He’d help businesses hurt by the pandemic — restaurants, hotels, conventions, hospitality and tourism.

In 2017 and 2018, the legislature overrode Cooper’s vetoes and passed its own budget. His vetoes withstood override attempts in 2019 and 2020, and the state went without an updated budget. Spending continued at prior levels, leaving needs unmet and issues unaddressed.

The governor’s plan won’t pass this year, again. We’ll see if he persuades Republicans to make significant changes. But he has met his responsibility, as the state’s chief executive and the Democratic Party’s leader, to offer an alternative vision for North Carolina’s future.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com