Gov. Cooper asks businesses to choose investments in education over more tax cuts

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told business leaders Tuesday that he needs their help in making teaching an attractive profession in the state again.

Saying the state has a real issue with recruiting new teachers to its schools, Cooper said he hopes business leaders will prefer investments in teacher salaries over further decreases to corporate tax rates.

Cooper’s address to business leaders came at the annual North Carolina CEO Forum — a gathering of some of the state’s most influential corporate executives at the Raleigh Convention Center.

“I’m not encouraging tax increases. I don’t think we need tax increases,” he said. “But what we do need to do is to preserve our tax base in North Carolina, so that we can make these investments.”

“When business has a choice between further cuts in corporate taxes or investments in our teachers,” he said, “I hope you will say investments in our teachers, because the CEOs I talk to aren’t complaining to me about our corporate tax structure. What they are complaining about is filling the jobs that they have with talented workers.”

Last week, the N.C. General Assembly approved average raises of 3.9% for teachers and 2% for non-instructional staff over the next two years. But Democrats have opposed to the bill, saying it is not a big enough raise for teachers. Cooper reiterated his party’s stance on Tuesday. Cooper offered a budget compromise in July that included 8.5% average raises for teachers.

“Our challenge is to lift the respect for the profession of teaching, and that means significant salary increases,” he said. “We cannot lag behind other states. And the amount of money that the General Assembly is talking about right now — 3.9% over the next two years — is completely inadequate.”

North Carolina’s corporate tax rate currently sits at 2.5%, which is lowest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation, although several states don’t have a corporate tax at all and collect taxes only on gross receipts.

Cooper also asked businesses to give back in more direct ways — specifically by helping fund an expansion of the state’s Teaching Fellowships program and by pushing for a school construction bond.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re telling people that we want you to come into the teaching profession,” he said, noting that he is a big fan of the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, which pays up to four years of a student’s college education if they teach special education or a STEM subject — science, technology, engineering or math — in a North Carolina public school.

“I believe that we ought to work on a public-private partnership to maybe have some private funding put into this,” he said. “Because I believe this is one of the best things we can do to increase and lift the level of respect for this profession and attract teachers into the profession.”

In his call for investments in school infrastructure, Cooper noted there hadn’t been a statewide school construction bond since 1996.

He said he is proposing a $2 billion bond, even though there are about $8 billion worth of projects.

“We need to make sure that we help these counties to provide modern classrooms for our children,” he said. “And this is the perfect time to do it. We just sold road bonds for 1.99%. We haven’t seen that (rate) in a long time.”

As he has since he began his term as governor, Cooper also called for support in expanding Medicaid in the state, saying it will create jobs, expand coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians and help stabilize rural hospitals.

“I believe that this is a moral issue,” he said. “I believe that we should try to work within the system to cover people who aren’t covered. And this is one way to do it.

“I don’t think we should be talking about taking people’s health insurance away, but what we need to do is to try to close the gaps. And this is something that we know works, that we’ve seen 37 states do.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.