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Breaking down Gov. Cooper's State of the State speech and the Republican response

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.
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Gov. Roy Cooper.

NC Gov. Roy Cooper delivered what's most likely his last State of the State address on Monday night at the General Assembly in Raleigh, outlining policy goals like boosting green energy and touting accomplishments like Republicans agreeing to Medicaid expansion. And Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson delivered the Republicans' response, in a speech that sounded a lot like the opening salvo of a campaign.

Cooper — a Democrat who is term-limited by the state's constitution — won't be running again in 2024. Robinson is widely assumed to be a Republican candidate, though he hasn't declared his candidacy. While Cooper warned against embroiling North Carolina in hot-button, culture war issues, Robinson — who has made his name as a firebrand on those issues — is likely to see such issues become a focal point in his campaign.

WUNC's Capitol Bureau Chief Colin Campbell joined WFAE's Marshall Terry from Raleigh on Tuesday morning to break down the governor's speech and the lieutenant governor's response. Listen to their conversation, or read a transcript below.

Breaking down Gov. Cooper's last State of the State address
WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Colin Campbell joined WFAE to talk about Gov. Roy Cooper's speech and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson's response.

Marshall Terry: Gov. Roy Cooper delivered what is likely to be his final state of the state address last night to a joint session of the state legislature. For more, we turn now to WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Colin Campbell who watched the address and took copious notes. Colin, thanks for joining us. What stood out to you overall?

Colin Campbell: I thought this was sort of a pragmatic final speech for the governor recognizing that he's going to have weakened political power this year with Democrats holding fewer seats in the House and the Senate. Obviously, Republicans have pretty close to a veto-proof majority in both chambers, which will mean Cooper has limited bargaining. So what you didn't hear from Cooper was any sort of major-scale policy proposals.

It was largely a recap of a lot of themes we've heard before, and a lot of sort of playing defense for what the legislature is going to do and, and his views on some of the hot-button issues that they're likely to take up that are likely headed to a veto on the governor's part.

Terry: Well, a lot of those themes that we did here, as you say, we're kind of familiar territory with Democrats — green energy, more investments in schools, stronger gun control, protecting reproductive rights.

Campbell: I mean, given the realities of big Republican majorities in the legislature, what policy goals outlined by Cooper are realistic (for him) and his party to actually achieve with Republicans in control here, you know, he started the speech with all the infrastructure themes and that's everything, not just, you know, road building but things like clean water infrastructure.

He mentioned a community in eastern North Carolina that had dirty water and recently got federal funding for a new water system. He mentioned the need for funding for child care centers to get more people back to work and improve the workforce, things like that.

I think, as well, as I think mental health are things that both parties seem to agree our priority is. Exactly how they go about it sort of remains to be seen. The budget process is still a couple of months out. But certainly he recognizes that those are areas where he may find some bipartisan agreement and can actually work with the legislature.

Some of the other issues you mentioned that came up last night, like gun control, abortion rights, various sort of social issues. Those are areas where the governor's position is not really shared by Republicans and he's going to have limited leverage to stop those things from becoming law as they go through the legislature.

Terry: One thing he said is that we don't need more tax cuts, which have been a Republican priority. He called instead for the state to use the budget surplus to increase funding for all levels of education. And not as he put it to cut taxes further for corporations and wealthy individuals. Do you think Republicans will consider, the governor's position here, or our tax cuts pretty much a certainty at this point?

Campbell: I think there's pretty much a certainty that we'll see personal income tax cuts. Now, of course, that affects both people at the bottom of the income level as well as folks at the top. That with the legislature typically does that it's not really tailored to be tax cuts for the middle class or low income.

They tend to like to, to do it across the board and that could provoke some opposition from Cooper and, and from, I have heard less talk about corporate income tax rates. What the governor did mention was that even the North Carolina Chamber has not called for further decreases in that rate.

And that's important because it's already state law that the corporate tax rates have decreased a couple more times in the next three or four years. So there's probably less desire to touch business taxes, at least on that front during this session.

Terry: The biggest bipartisan win that Cooper mentioned was Medicaid expansion. But he called on Republicans to move more quickly than they are, even though they have agreed to expand it. So, what's going on there?

Campbell: Yes, the Republicans have agreed to expand it, but they've got it set to take effect when the budget takes effect, which typically happens sometime in the summer.

That's, of course, months away. Cooper would like to have that to happen immediately. He argues that there is federal money that's being left on the table to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every month that the state delays, and he wants that to happen.

Now, Republicans argued that there's enough financial components to expanding Medicaid in the state that it really needs to be tied into the larger budget. And so that's why you've got that sort of push and pull over Medicaid, but there was a moment of bipartisan "thank you's" last night, with the new agreement to expand Medicaid that was announced last week, just a few days ahead of the speech.

Terry: Cooper explicitly warned against getting North Carolina embroiled in the culture wars that have been grabbing headlines in places like Florida and Texas. And he referenced the 2016 "bathroom bill," House Bill 2, about transgender bathroom access that generated a lot of bad press for North Carolina. Now, that kind of sounded a bit like a preemptive response to Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican widely assumed to be running for governor and who also gave the Republican response last night. He's really made his name as a firebrand on these culture issues.

So, do you agree with that, that Cooper's mentioning of that was a preemptive response there?

Campbell: Yeah, absolutely. It's sort of a preemptive response to, to what's happening in the legislature already in their first month or two of session.

There have been some of these bills moving limits on what teachers in elementary schools can teach about LGBT topics, limits on critical race theory are, are out there. There's also some, some various gun bills. There's abortion proposals being considered, probably nothing as draconian as what we've seen in some other states. But we certainly will see some level of new restrictions being proposed in the coming weeks.

So I think Cooper's responding that, of course, Robinson is going to be embracing most of those policies, and he more or less hinted as much on his view of those issues toward the end of his, his Republican rebuttal that he gave shortly after Cooper spoke last night.

Terry: And we've got just about 30 seconds left. What was your take on Robinson's response? Is this a preview of what we can expect in the 2024 race?

Campbell: Yeah, it seems like he was giving his biography last night. During his speech (it) almost felt a little bit like sort of a preemptive campaign launch, even though he never mentioned anything about running for governor. The fact that he got this platform suggests that Republicans want to elevate him to that level potentially. And so I think we're going to be hearing more from him very, very soon.


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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.