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Cooper Stronger In Second Half, But GOP Still In Majority

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The first half of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's term was confrontational even before it began, as Republican legislators rammed through laws swiping away some of his powers even before he got sworn in. He sued over those laws, issued a record number of vetoes — most of them overridden — and exchanged sharp rejoinders with the GOP.

Now, Cooper stands in a stronger position entering the second half of his four-year term. North Carolina Democrats won enough legislative seats in November to end the Republicans' full control of the General Assembly, which kicks off its two-year session Wednesday with a one-day organizational meeting.

It means GOP lawmakers can't pass big policy items without some buy-in from Cooper or several Democratic lawmakers, because Cooper's vetoes can't be overturned now by Republicans alone.

Shrewd negotiations could reap Cooper some policy victories after playing defense the past two years. He's got his own ideas on public education, taxes and the environment, and wants Medicaid expanded under the 2010 federal health care law.

Cooper, who raised millions of dollars for Democratic candidates that helped end the GOP supermajorities, is talking about collaboration and setting aside recent ire.

"We all have to put on our big-boy pants and understand that we're living in a world where people get very personal in their comments," Cooper said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "But for the good of the public, we have to put that aside and understand the public has voted for more balance. The public has said, 'We want you to work together.'"

Republicans acknowledge the changing dynamics but still hold a majority of seats in the House and Senate and have done so since 2011. Some argue it's up to Cooper and legislative Democrats to find places where they can agree with the GOP, not the reverse.

In 2019, both parties are going to have to start working together, Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said as Republicans last month overrode another of Cooper's 28 vetoes since early 2017.

"The governor's going to have to learn to talk with this body and the minority party is going to have to work constructively, instead of just casting stones from the sidelines," Lewis said.

Cooper and Republicans already showed last fall they can get along when necessary, approving recovery legislation after Hurricane Florence's record rains and floods. But they still disagree strongly on big-picture items.

Republicans have cut income tax rates for all, but Cooper said reductions for corporations and the wealthiest individuals must stop so more funding can go to public schools. The governor wants to choke the GOP's expansion of taxpayer-funded vouchers for children to attend private schools, but Republicans are aiming to award nearly 35,000 of these scholarships annually in less than 10 years.

House Majority Leader John Bell of Wayne County said he believes Republicans and Cooper can unite around improving public schools. He said initiatives to boost school construction, repairs and safety can find bipartisan support.

"[Cooper] has an opportunity to show the state that he can work with the Republican majorities and to this point, he's not shown that," Bell said.

A tricky issue may be Medicaid expansion, which Democrats have sought for years to provide coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured residents.

Republicans have been suspicious of the federal government's promise to pay nearly all the costs of expansion and worried about state Medicaid's fiscal condition. But with the program now financially stable, some GOP lawmakers now back an expansion proposal that would include work requirements for enrollees. Bell said he doesn't believe there are enough votes for expansion but agrees there must be more health care access.

Interactions between Cooper and Republican lawmakers will increasingly be viewed in light of 2020 when Cooper is likely to seek re-election. And the parties winning a majority of House or Senate seats that fall will control redistricting in their chambers for the next decade.

Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said Cooper certainly now has leverage, and GOP lawmakers can't be seen as do-nothings by refusing to work with him, especially on health care, which was a big 2018 election issue.

"On many issues, there will be more cooperation because the automatic veto override is not going to be there on party lines," McLennan said. "But we can't ignore the last two years of the relationship."

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