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North Carolina politicians made big deals in 2021 — after an impasse

Gov. Roy Cooper announced an easing of coronavirus restrictions Wednesday that allows bars and movie theaters to open for the first time in nearly a year.
NC Department of Safety
Gov. Roy Cooper is seen during a coronavirus news briefing in early 2021.

As the year draws to a close in politically divided North Carolina, hostilities have eased somewhat between the Democratic governor and majority-Republican lawmakers, both of whom recently agreed on a comprehensive budget more than three years after the last one was approved. But their relationship is still far from harmonious.

Last month, second-term Gov. Roy Cooper signed a two-year, $53 billion state budget bill penned by GOP legislative leaders that was 4 1/2 months late, and with lots inside for him to dislike, such as provisions that rein in his emergency powers and phase out corporate income taxes. And there are only plans to study the broad Medicaid expansion he's sought for years, with no promise for an actual vote.

Two years ago, Cooper vetoed the spending bill. But this year, there was enough in it to make him sign, including an avalanche of surplus funds that Republicans were happy to direct toward myriad projects across the state, including broadband expansion and water treatment plant repairs.

“The good outweighed the bad, and it was time to move forward,” Cooper said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There’s been a long time since we’ve had a budget, and (vetoing) it would have at that time stopped everything.”

North Carolina, the nation's ninth-largest state, was the last to enact a budget for 2021.

The governor's signature capped a year in which Cooper agreed with Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger that good-faith negotiations, rather than stalemate, was the path to take.

The two sides also passed compromise legislation requiring more students to return to in-person classesearlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic eased and data showed low transmission among young people; raising police accountability standards; and making North Carolina the first southeastern state to establish greenhouse gas emission reduction requirements. And they celebrated announcements that Apple will build its first East Coast campus and Toyota its first North American battery plant in the state, thanks in part to approved incentives.

“I think we’ve worked to try and make a difference,” Cooper said, and “we’ve come together on some historic legislation that’s going to make this state better.”

Conflict between Cooper and the General Assembly hasn't ebbed fully. The governor used his veto stamp on 16 bills this year, and none of the vetoes have been overturned. His fights with the Republicans began even before he was sworn in. Just two days before taking office in January 2017, the then-outgoing attorney general began suing GOP legislators for passing laws shifting gubernatorial powers to themselves.

In 2019, Cooper vetoed the budget bill, insisting that Medicaid expansion be negotiated. The GOP disagreed, and a conventional spending plan was never approved for the first time in recent state history. There was no government shutdown, yet many agencies operated at previous-year levels.

Then COVID-19 arrived, as did billions of dollars in federal relief. A 2020 election to determine control of state government didn’t change a thing: Cooper won reelection, and Republicans maintained majorities that weren’t veto-proof.

Some Democratic legislators who were committed to upholding Cooper’s 2019 budget veto were determined this year to enact a plan. Massive amounts for building construction and other special projects sprinkled nearly everywhere in the budget appeared to give Republicans leverage, too.

“We had funding in there to touch the lives of every North Carolinian,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat who was one of the budget negotiators because he had voted for the original House plan. Failing to enact a budget, Graham added, “would have not been ... good leadership.”

Cooper managed enough concessions, particularly on education spending, to accept the final product.

“To his credit, he really wanted to make sure that we had a budget, and he was willing to sign a budget,” Berger said in a recent interview.

GOP Rep. Jason Saine, a top House budget writer, said that Cooper, who is term-limited from serving beyond 2024, may have felt pressure to sign a budget because he had never done so.

“The (game) board has changed a little bit. And I think anybody that seeks that office, whether Republican or Democrat, they’ve got to think about their legacy, too,” Saine said.

More than 50 Democrats ended up voting for the bill after Cooper signaled he'd sign it. Criticism from Cooper's allies was muted or directed at Republicans.

“After working for the past two years during the pandemic with no raises and no state budgets, educators have every reason to be disappointed,” North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a video. The 5% average pay raises for teachers, for example, was only half what Cooper had sought.

Mac McCorkle, a Duke University instructor and former adviser to North Carolina's two previous Democratic governors, said it was a “close call" but believes Cooper did the right thing.

“While the die-hard partisans want a bitter fight to the end — on both sides — a lot of other people, people who voted for Roy Cooper, think that the governor should be cooperative, and should collaborate, and that budgets should be signed,” McCorkle said.

Cooper, who leads the Democratic Governors Association next year, is often held up as a model for the party, winning in a state that voted twice for Donald Trump. He could be weakened, however, should Republicans win enough seats next November to regain veto-proof control. Democrats and allies are suing GOP leaders to halt Republican redistricting maps that would help retain or expand GOP majorities.

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