Cooper has little wiggle room with legislature in 2023

Published 11:55 pm Wednesday, December 14, 2022

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper described on Wednesday jobs announcements, an emerging clean energy sector and his ability to block “culture-war, business-killing” laws on social issues from the General Assembly among his administration’s accomplishments during 2022.

There could be little room for error in his dealings with the legislature in 2023, however, as Republicans moved to the precipice of regaining veto-proof control following last month’s elections.

In a year-end interview with The Associated Press, Cooper said he’ll need to rely partly on self-control by GOP leaders to prevent enactment of what he considered unwise legislation that could undo economic successes following a string of big business announcements.

“I think Republican leadership would tell you that things are going pretty well in our state,” he told the AP at the Executive Mansion. “People are still struggling, clearly. But we’ve emerged from this pandemic pretty strong. This balance has been important.”

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger and the governor reached a détente of sorts following the 2020 elections, when Cooper won reelection and Republicans retained their majorities in the House and Senate. Those majorities, however, weren’t veto-proof.

Cooper successfully vetoed nearly two dozen bills over the past two years on topics such as abortion restrictions, gun rights and immigration. But the two branches of government also managed to agree on criminal justice reforms, a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric-generating plants and two state budget laws. Legislation included incentives that contributed to big jobs announcements this year from Boom Supersonic, VinFast and Wolfspeed.

This fall, Cooper campaigned hard to prevent Republicans from earning the additional seats necessary to gain veto-proof majorities that would allow them to make laws without necessary buy-in from Cooper. While Senate Republicans reached the 30 seats needed to override a Cooper veto, the House GOP fell one vote short. That means Republicans would need just one Democratic member to join them in most scenarios to complete an override.

Moore told reporters on Tuesday that he’s “met with several Democrats who have made it very clear to me that they’re going to vote with us on a lot of issues.”

Cooper hinted that the GOP could use parliamentary maneuvers to complete successful overrides without a Democratic vote. “I do believe we can hold the line on bad laws,” but “a lot of that will depend on statesmanship of the Republican leadership.”

Cooper suggested that his administration’s emphasis next year will be less about money battles with the legislature and more about distributing billions of federal dollars received from Congress for road improvements, water and sewer projects, clean energy initiatives and high-speed internet expansion.

“Yes, there’s going to be money in the budget for the General Assembly, but federal money is already there,” he said. “So that is going to be our primary focus.”

The most contentious issue at the legislature likely will be abortion, as legislative Republicans say they plan to consider additional restrictions on the procedure in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. Abortions are legal in North Carolina through 20 weeks of pregnancy, with narrow exceptions for medical emergencies for the patient.

Cooper, who made protecting abortion rights a key part of his legislative elections platform, said Wednesday he’d consider anything that bans abortion after less than 20 weeks extreme.

“North Carolina’s law is already strict enough when it comes to restricting women’s reproductive freedom,” he said.

On other topics, Cooper said he remained hopeful that legislators would reach an agreement to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults, after the most promising effort to date at the Legislative Building last summer fizzled by year’s end.

He said a proposal getting attention at the State Board of Education to overhaul how public school teachers are paid by basing salary levels on performance and not years of experience “is worth exploring.” Board officials could ask the legislature in 2023 to try out the idea in pilot districts.

Cooper, who was first elected governor in 2016 but is term-limited in 2024, also recognized his time as chief executive is dwindling — adding an urgency to meet his goals: “Two years is a long time, but then it’s not,” said Cooper, 65. “And I know how fast these almost six years have passed.”