Gov. Cooper says he’ll sign 2-year budget bill into law
Published 1:45 pm Tuesday, November 16, 2021
By GARY D. ROBERTSON and BRYAN ANDERSON Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday that he would sign the legislature’s final two-year budget bill into law once it reaches his desk, saying the good contained inside the Republican-penned bill “outweighs the bad.”
Holding a news conference at the same time the Senate prepared for floor debate on the budget plan, Cooper said that there were many “missed opportunities” and several areas that he opposes. But he said the state needs a comprehensive budget plan in place to address the needs of students, small businesses and taxpayers as North Carolina emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I will sign this budget because of its critical and necessary investments, and I will fight to fix its mistakes,” Cooper told reporters.
Cooper already had last week signaled his willingness to sign the bill after he, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore held serious negotiations for nearly two months. With a spending plan that’s 4 1/2 months late, North Carolina is currently the only state in the nation without an enacted budget, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Senate planned to hold the first of two required votes Tuesday, with the House to follow on Wednesday. Cooper’s announcement likely will free up more Democrats to support the measure without taking criticism from within their own party.
Before now, Cooper had never signed a traditional, comprehensive state budget into law, vetoing them in 2017, 2018 and 2019. There was no such budget bill in 2020.
While Republicans lack veto-proof majorities this year, Cooper, Berger and Moore signaled things could be different. With massive state revenue surpluses combined with over $7 billion in federal COVID-19 relief aid, Republican budget-writers were able to win over many Democrats with financial and policy sweeteners benefitting their communities.
Still, the nearly 1,400 pages of budget documents that lawmakers unveiled Monday contain several provisions on GOP policy that the second-term governor has railed against consistently since taking office in 2017. They include a plan to eliminate the state’s already low 2.5% corporate income tax rate, although the phaseout wouldn’t begin until early 2025, as Cooper leaves office.
During Cooper’s first two years in office, Republicans overrode his budget vetoes because they held veto-proof majorities. In 2019, after Democrats gained seats, Cooper’s veto couldn’t be overturned by Republicans, leading to a stalemate with GOP leaders that was never fully resolved.
This year, Republicans managed to win “yes” votes on earlier versions of budget legislation from over a dozen Democrats — more than enough for an override if they stuck with Republicans. All 13 were added to the negotiation teams for a final budget, and all of them signed the “conference report” that lawmakers will vote on.
Cooper said Tuesday he still believed Senate Democrats would have been able to uphold a budget veto, but he said he was worried that Republican lawmakers would simply walk away from budget negotiations had that happened.
“This is a time that the state must move ahead,” Cooper said. “Too many important investments in this budget are overdue.”
The budget measure, which spends $25.9 billion this year and $27 billion the next, contains $5.9 billion for state agencies and higher education building projects and $800 million in lottery funds for public school construction.
Average teacher pay would go up 5% in the plan over two years, and when an injection of $100 million to boost teacher salaries in low-wealth and rural counties is included, that average reaches 6.7%, according to GOP lawmakers. It still falls short of the 10% that Cooper proposed months ago. Most teachers could see one-time bonuses of $2,800. And staff at public schools like janitors and office workers will make at least $15 per hour starting in the fall of 2022.
Rank-and-file state employees also will see 5% raises over two years and at least $1,000 bonuses. And all retirees will see one-time bonuses of 5% over the same period.
Cooper also will have to swallow a provision contained inside that would limit his emergency powers, such as during the pandemic.
The language says a governor would have to receive support from a majority of Council of State members to expand an emergency declaration beyond 30 days. The General Assembly would have to act for one to go beyond 60 days. The governor vetoed a separate bill with somewhat similar language two weeks ago, complaining in part that it would have taken effect immediately. The budget provision delays the start until January 2023.
Follow Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson and Robertson at https://twitter.com/garydrobertson.
Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.