For those who voted to make Democrat Roy Cooper the next governor of North Carolina, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news for his supporters: Gov. Cooper will have broad authority to appoint department heads and board members with jurisdiction over everything from environmental policy to early voting hours. And he’ll have a bully pulpit from which to try to forge public support for, say, repealing House Bill 2.
And the bad news for Cooper voters? Republicans will still have “supermajorities” in the legislature. That means they’ll likely have enough votes to not only override Cooper’s vetoes of their bills but also to shoot down many of his proposals, including any effort to scuttle HB2, which limits legal protections for LGBT people.
Politics can surprise, so there are no guarantees.
But an analysis of all the givens – a deeply divided state, laws already on the books, the governor’s power to appoint and speak out, and continued GOP dominance of the legislature – offers strong clues about what is likely to happen, what is less likely to happen and what is least likely to happen over the next four years.
Likely to happen: Environmental activists worried about the effect of climate change on rising sea levels on North Carolina’s coast will find Cooper’s administration more receptive than that of outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Less likely: Any big change on the UNC Board of Governors, whose members are named by the legislature.
Among the least likely to happen: Expansion of Medicaid. The legislature said no in 2013. And expansion is tied to the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Washington – including President-elect Donald Trump – have vowed to repeal.
So here’s the lay of the land as Cooper and legislative leaders get ready for a new year that could bring combat or bipartisanship – or both.
Look for more early voting hours, locations
With a Democrat in the governor’s office, state and local boards of election will have Democratic majorities enforcing voting laws and setting schedules for early voting. Democrats may look to add locations and expand hours.
Some Republican-dominated local boards tried to limit the hours available for early voting leading to the last election. The GOP-led state board rejected some of those plans, and the state ended up providing 16 percent more hours and 21 percent more locations than in 2012.
State law requires Cooper to appoint members to the State Board of Elections by May 1; the state board appoints local boards.
A state law reducing options for registration and voting and requiring photo identification to vote was thrown out by a federal appeals court before the November election.
Cooper said he wants online voter registration and a nonpartisan process of creating political districts. But none of those changes can happen without legislative approval.
Chance for deals on teacher pay, schools
The North Carolina Association of Educators sees Cooper’s election as a victory for teachers. But whether that translates into higher pay or better working conditions will depend on his ability to work with the legislature.
“He’s going to be asking, not telling,” said Charles Jeter, a former Republican House member who now lobbies for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Jeter and Keith Poston, president of the nonpartisan Public School Forum in Raleigh, said Cooper’s advocacy can help shape specifics in areas that have bipartisan support, such as increasing teacher pay. Areas where partisan differences are sharper, such as Republican support for expanding charter schools and vouchers, may prove tougher for Cooper.
“If you’re looking to have some joint victories, education is probably the most fertile ground,” Jeter said.
The governor appoints 11 members of the state Board of Education, which has responsibility for education policy and the state’s Office of Charter Schools, but only as terms end or members leave. Three members’ terms expire in 2017 and another three in 2019.
Ann Doss Helms
Will House Bill 2 stand?
Cooper vowed on the campaign trail to work to repeal the law, which made several changes to labor and employment rules in addition to its more well publicized provisions limiting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled championship games from the state in protest. Concerts were canceled and business expansions scrapped.
Republican legislators showed some willingness in the waning months of the 2016 election to repeal HB2 – but only if the city of Charlotte repealed a nondiscrimination ordinance that prompted the state law. Democratic legislators didn’t push the city to take action, though, and Charlotte officials didn’t take the deal.
Now that the election is over, will either Democrats or Republicans be more willing to compromise? Cooper will have to hope the small number of anti-HB2 Republicans continues to grow larger.
New outlook on environment
Cooper and his secretary of Environmental Quality are likely to embrace the state’s blossoming renewable energy industry and acknowledge the role of climate change in rising sea levels on North Carolina’s coast. Under McCrory, current Secretary Donald van der Vaart has voiced skepticism of renewable energy and fought President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
The governor appoints nine of the 15 members of the state Environmental Management Commission, including its chairman. The commission adopts rules on air and water resources.
Cooper might also name a new chairman of the seven-member Utilities Commission next June, when Edward Finley’s term expires, and can appoint two members in 2017 and three in 2019. Among the commission’s duties are setting utility rates. Cooper opposed several electric utility rate hikes as attorney general.
Medicaid expansion prospects
Cooper slammed McCrory for not accepting an expansion of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, that would be almost entirely paid for by the federal government. Cooper said he would expand Medicaid, and that it would create jobs in addition to helping people get cheaper medical treatment.
However, the Medicaid expansion was part of the Affordable Care Act – which many believe is at least part of the reason McCrory refused to expand it in the first place, as well as a reason Cooper might not get a chance to reverse course. Trump has said getting rid of Obamacare will be among his first priorities.
But even if the health law continues, expanding Medicaid could be hard because Cooper would need the cooperation of the General Assembly. The legislature voted in 2013 to reject any expansion of Medicaid.
Doctors’ role in Medicaid
The state has moved toward privatizing Medicaid. Republican legislators pushed the plan, but it will be the job of the Cooper administration to move to complete it.
Cooper wants to keep the nonprofit Community Care of North Carolina, which oversees groups of doctors and medical practices that organize primary care for Medicaid patients and serve to keep down costs.
Lawmakers and the state want federal permission to phase out Community Care of North Carolina as it exists and switch to a system in which health care providers are allotted a budget for each Medicaid patient. Doctors and hospitals would be liable for any cost overruns. But the Cooper administration could work to maintain some of it and weave it into the new Medicaid system.
Additional road improvements
Cooper has said he wants further investment in the state’s transportation network. He recently talked up the idea of a transportation bond, citing low interest rates and construction costs.
“We know that North Carolina’s population will continue to grow,” he said before the election. “We need infrastructure investment now, not just in improving our roads and bridges, but in upgrading our water and sewer infrastructure, modernizing our energy grid and investing in public transit.”
It might be an area for negotiation. But it could be a tough sell in the Republican-led legislature, which in the past has preferred a pay-as-you-go approach rather than borrowing.
Halfway through his term, McCrory pushed for more borrowing for transportation, including a $1.4 billion transportation bond, but the General Assembly did not include road projects in a bond referendum. Lawmakers instead generated transportation money through budget changes.
Continued focus on jobs
Cooper is expected to bring in a new commerce secretary, but economic development officials aren’t expecting big changes to the state’s approach to recruiting businesses – at least not right away.
Under McCrory, the state created a new public-private partnership that spearheads efforts to lure jobs to North Carolina. To make major changes to that structure, Cooper would need approval from the legislature.
The state partnership meant changes for regional groups that recruit businesses. But the new setup is starting to “gain traction” after a “rocky start,” said Charlotte Regional Partnership CEO Ronnie Bryant, whose group lost funds when the state shifted money to the state organization.
“Wholesale changing the economic focus is probably not the best way to go at this particular time,” said Bryant, who noted his group has a good working relationship with the state partnership’s CEO, Chris Chung, and his staff.
Bryant, however, said the state needs to restore its image as a “competitive, progressive state,” a reference to HB2.
Laws that whittle away at abortion rights
Cooper hasn’t been a vocal supporter of abortion rights. But even if he was, it wouldn’t matter much.
Republicans in the legislature have in recent years voted mostly along party lines to pass or attempt to pass multiple laws that make it harder for women to get abortions.
An abortion law that went into effect at the start of 2016 passed the House with only one Republican voting no, and two Democrats voting yes. In the Senate, even though two Republicans voted no and no Democrats voted yes, it still passed with a veto-proof majority.
The law required doctors to send the state Department of Health and Human Services records for all abortions or induced miscarriages after the 16th week of pregnancy. Cooper criticized the law in a debate with McCrory.
Assuming the GOP leadership is able to maintain the kind of party cohesion on abortion it showed on that law, it will override any vetoes from Cooper.
However, the courts could still pose a threat to anti-abortion legislation. A 2011 North Carolina abortion law was recently struck down as unconstitutional because the court found it forced doctors “to be the mouthpiece of the state” and deliver a message to women seeking an abortion even if neither the woman nor the doctor approved.