Cooper, legislative cooperation would benefit state


Sunday, December 11, 2016

The month-long election canvas and recount process now behind us – with the exception of a couple of races – North Carolina residents can begin to look ahead to what a change in the governor's office will mean.

Just getting to this point, after a close, hard-fought campaign in the gubernatorial race, is a relief. For some who supported Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the road ahead will not be exactly what they had hoped, as McCrory finally conceded last week to Democrat Roy Cooper, winner of the Nov. 8 election. But they can take comfort in the knowledge that the N.C. Senate and House remain firmly in control of veto-proof Republican majorities.

For Cooper that is the reality, too, and much of what he hopes to achieve will be determined by whether his administration and state Republican lawmakers can cooperate. The new governor, however, will have opportunities to move the political needle in public policy, education and other areas.

Cooper's hands on the controls of the executive branch will bring a new force of leaders and staff in many government offices, from his cabinet to state school board members to election boards to heads of numerous agencies statewide. Of course, the Legislature controls funding, a lever of power with immense implications for how successful Cooper can be. And the bill-enacting power of the Legislature is a trump card held by the Republican House and Senate. Cooper's aims and objectives will be greatly controlled by the Legislature's controls over the raising and distribution of revenue and law-making.

On the other hand, Cooper, as a vocal and visible chief executive, can press for needed laws, projects and policy that resonate with North Carolinians. A sitting governor can, with strategic vision, move public opinion toward desired objectives outside partisan infighting. The “bully pulpit”, as it is known, can be a powerful tool, if deftly exercised

That will be a key tactic as Cooper prepares the budget – the blueprint for his administration's objectives. Though differences from the priorities of Republican leaders will emerge, the governor can take his case directly to the public. Hence, the Legislature is not un-tethered from the political influence of Cooper's hard lobbying when it gains traction with the public. That should create a healthy environment for compromise that benefits the state overall, and there are several areas where this can happen.

What may seen a long-shot, but possible compromise is expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides healthcare for the poor and elderly. So far the state has refused to accept a federal option to expand Medicaid. However the state's own fiscal evidence – along with that of other states where expansion has been implemented – demonstrate the value and cost effectiveness of the program. It would, by basic financial principles, be a good choice that, while benefiting about 500,000 people in North Carolina, would help hospitals and businesses and add jobs. This is a plan where Cooper may be able to court legislative compromise.

Another opportunity where Cooper may find a cooperative response is with education. As the Legislature demonstrated earlier this year when it revisited and raised teacher salaries, the House and Senate are taking a more progressive view of the value of classroom teachers and public education overall in North Carolina.

One of the most pressing, and difficult public policy objectives facing Cooper and the Legislature will be to regain the lost ground that North Carolina has given up in its reputation as a result of House Bill 2, or, “The Bathroom Bill.”

The law, which the Legislature rushed to approval last year without anticipating its broader implications, is one of the state's darkest public policy actions in the post-civil rights era. Claimed by proponents, as a “common sense” measure to protect the privacy of state residents, it is, in fact, an exercise in discrimination against gay, transgender an bisexual residents, legislating use of bathroom facilities according to the sex shown on a birth certificate rather than the biological sex with which they identify. HB2 also prevents cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination policies aimed at protecting their LGBT citizens.

The damage from HB2 is undeniable, having bruised the state's image and cost thousands of jobs, as well as revenue from prized college and professional sports events. These damaging actions wreak severe implications for the state economy and future growth. We expect Cooper to press for repeal and would urge legislators to find a path to compromise that will removed this damaging stigma from our state. As McCrory's election loss illustrated, North Carolina residents do not want their state stereotyped as a harbor of discrimination.

Of course, some will cling to the law. Among them may be our own Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg, who recently tried to pass off McCrory's election loss to toll booths being placed on I-77. It's understandable that Steinburg, a fervent advocate for the law himself, would be in denial about HB2. Before the election he stated that he didn't care how much HB2 costs North Carolina. Well, it's costing a lot to the economy, and it just cost the Republicans the governor's mansion. Maybe it's time for introspection rather than denial.

That would also demonstrate the kind of leadership this state needs to bring its citizens together. Both Cooper and the Legislature should work for that. The alternative is more partisanship, mistrust and divisiveness — something that diminishes us all.