By Anne Blythe

Gov. Roy Cooper stood at the front of the state House of Representatives chamber on Monday night and provided lawmakers his take on the state of the state.

As North Carolina begins to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic that laid bare many of the state’s systemic inequities, Cooper offered notes of optimism as he tried to strike a chord with a General Assembly chamber with which he has often been at political odds.

Cooper hit on many of the themes that he campaigned for a  second term as governor in a state where voters elected a Democrat in the statewide race to lead the executive branch of government and sent more Republicans than Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives in district races.

After acknowledging the 12,560 coronavirus deaths in North Carolina and calling out the sacrifices of health care workers and teachers in the face of unprecedented challenges, he expressed his belief that the people of the state are “strong, resilient and ready to face the challenges of the future.” 

“I believe that we will rebuild from this pandemic to be even stronger than before,” Cooper said. “And I believe that we can roar into the future together, creating a shared recovery that ensures our best days lie ahead.”

Cooper called for:

  • Expanding Medicaid to cover more than half a million North Carolinians who are low-income workers without health insurance, people with disabilities and others who don’t now qualify for the federal program but could under a provision in the Affordable Care Act.
  • Raising teacher pay.
  • Investing more in higher education, workforce training programs, early childhood education and more so that North Carolinians will be eligible for new jobs offered by Apple and other companies either coming to or expanding in this state.
  • Putting an infrastructure bond on the ballot that brings high-speed internet access to all corners of the state, modernizes school buildings, and invests in clean energy jobs and businesses.

The Biden administration inserted a tempting carrot into recent legislation which would provide close to $1.7 billion to North Carolina over the coming years in exchange for expanding Medicaid, the state- and federally funded health care program. 

Cooper pointed to people who would benefit from the move, such as child care center owner Cassandra Brooks who has facilities in Clayton and Garner. 

“Cassandra had a friend and a coworker die from a stroke when she could not afford treatment for her high blood pressure,” Cooper said. “She has seen people without health insurance get sick with COVID-19 and not be able to get the care they needed. One in five child care workers don’t have health insurance.”

Cooper said that expanding Medicaid would achieve goals agreed upon by a health care council that he convened over the winter that included some Republican lawmakers, business owners, and health care and insurance providers. 

“It uses tax dollars wisely and reduces health care costs for businesses. It makes health care more fair. It reaches rural areas,” he said. “Let’s make a deal.”

Stamp out systemic racism

Cooper said the state must confront and fix systemic racism that has plagued North Carolina for centuries and led to poorer health outcomes for people of color.

Shows a formal wood paneled legislative chamber with a man, Gov. Cooper, standing at the podium, others seated watching him.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper delivers his State of the State address before a joint session of the North Carolina House and Senate on Monday, April 26, 2021 in Raleigh, N.C. N.C. Pool photo by Robert Willett/ News & Observer

 “We must face head-on the stark reality of systemic racism, and how it hurts people and leaves them behind — who gets to see a doctor, who gets hired for a job, who gets charged with a crime, who gets prison time, who gets killed,” Cooper said.

Late last week, an Elizabeth City Black man died after Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies opened fire while serving drug-related arrest warrants on him while he was in his car in his driveway, according to his family’s account after seeing 20 seconds of law enforcement body camera footage on Monday.

Many questions remain about how and why Andrew Brown Jr.’s life ended as it did.

“Over the past year, and just in the past week, we’ve seen the ​harm suffered by too many people of color in our state and across the country,” Cooper said. Some of that harm included a disparate number of Latino and Black residents of the state stricken and dying from COVID. 

 “We must all stand together to stop racial injustice in North Carolina,” Cooper added. “In all the areas that are important for people’s success — health care, education, economic strength, the justice system — we must confront systems that favor some and harm others and we must fix them.”

Finding common ground

Cooper acknowledged past stalemates between him and the Republicans leading the state House and Senate that led to unorthodox spending plans for the past two years. 

The state budget process ended in a stalemate in 2019, after the governor refused to sign a budget without Medicaid expansion as part of the spending plan. Republican legislators instead sent Cooper a bevy of “mini-budgets” which got most of the state’s budgeting accomplished, but froze overall spending at 2018 levels while not accomplishing Cooper’s stated goal of getting more people health care coverage. 

The crisis of the pandemic, however, forced the two camps together

The governor highlighted how they came to an agreement more recently to compromise on legislation they all could buy into to reopen North Carolina’s school districts to in-person learning.

He mentioned lawmakers’ bills that allocated federal aid during the pandemic that he signed into law.

When he sent over his recommended spending plan for the coming two years, Cooper again called for a spirit of compromise.

“There are some really good ideas in there,” Cooper said with a smile. “There’s going to have to be some give and take in order for us to get this done. I don’t want to have to veto the budget, and I will do my part to see that we have a budget and I expect you to do yours. And I want to see a budget that has three signatures — Speaker Moore’s, Senator Berger’s, and mine. Our people deserve it.”

Tim Moore, the Kings Mountain Republican who has been Speaker of the House since 2015, provided the GOP response to Cooper’s state of the state. It’s clear that not everything on the governor’s wish list is going to be met with bipartisan enthusiasm.

Differing philosophies

“We all want North Carolina to be a place where people can have good jobs, safe homes, and provide their children with the very best educational opportunities,” Moore said. “We may have very different views on how to achieve those goals. But I and my fellow Republicans intend to try and find as much common ground as possible. In North Carolina, we’re not afraid of our differences. Rather, we view our differences as a part of the rich fabric of our great state as we work together to move North Carolina forward.”

shows a man in a suit and tie standing in front of a podium, looking at the camera after Cooper's address. There's a large brass medallion on the wall behind him
Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) from the House of Representatives gave the Republican response to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address Monday night. Screen capture courtesy: PBS NC

Cooper and Moore said North Carolina is in a good position to emerge from the pandemic stronger.

Moore said that was because Republicans had cut taxes and reduced spending while in the majority since 2012, amassing a surplus that Cooper wants to dip into the reserves to fund some of the proposals in his budget.

“One major area of disagreement between the governor and Republicans is how to handle the good fortune of this major budget surplus,” Moore said. “While the governor will push for large increases in state programs, bureaucracy and spending, we know that this is a recipe for unsustainable budgeting that will eventually lead to painful cuts or tax hikes in the near future.”

Republicans, like Cooper, want to invest in rural broadband access, which became so vital for school and health care access during the pandemic, along with water and sewer infrastructure and roads, bridges and highway building. They also support a summer school program for children, many of whom have been in remote learning situations for much of the past year.

Republicans and Democrats will have to work hard together, Moore said. “And we won’t always agree on the best way to do things. But I assure you that we all agree we want North Carolina to be the very best it can be.”

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.