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North Carolina’s media is understandably obsessed with the economic impact of House Bill 2, and it was clear from N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s July 13 news conference in Charlotte that he wants to keep as much emphasis on the controversy as possible.

But Cooper, in releasing a jobs plan in his bid to unseat Gov. Pat McCrory, made some points about much less sexy economic-development issues. Many are quite similar to McCrory’s views:

Like McCrory, Cooper complains that the state’s main incentives program, JDIG, is not helping the state’s poorest counties. One suspects that has little to do with state policy and a lot to do with the preference of most companies to expand in Charlotte, Greensboro or Raleigh-Durham rather than small towns off the interstates.

Like McCrory, Cooper wants a big bond issue vote that will spur spending on roads. But Cooper contends he can build alliances more effectively than the governor, who failed to convince legislative leaders that a $1 billion bond was essential. McCrory and the N.C. General Assembly’s leadership are Republicans, but Cooper’s deliberative style may be preferable to many lawmakers compared with McCrory and N.C. Commerce Secretary John Skvarla, whose legislative relationships have been frosty at times.

Like McCrory, Cooper believes that state government can pick “winners,” namely job-creating companies and industries. Cooper says the governor needs to do a better job and “target industries with real growth potential.” McCrory’s administration contends it already does that. Trouble is, lots of evidence suggests governments are ineffective in allocating tax credits or incentives. North Carolina’s program has typically benefited big businesses such as Wal-Mart and MetLife.

Like McCrory, Cooper wants the state to push hard to attract a big auto manufacturing plant and needs “a strong leader and a coordinated effort.” Of course, McCrory says that is well underway. Perhaps Cooper’s criticism should be directed at former Democratic governors Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue, who were in charge when BMW, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and others skipped North Carolina.

Like McCrory, Cooper wants to expand the influence of the state’s community colleges by emphasizing to high-school students and their parents that four-year degrees aren’t required for many good skilled-trade jobs. That sounds a lot like McCrory, who was derided for suggesting the UNC System is producing too many students with liberal arts degrees when the state needs more plumbers, electricians and computer technicians.

Of course, there are some key differences on important economic development issues.

Cooper makes no mention of reducing the personal income tax, a favorite McCrory theme that mostly benefits folks with higher incomes. Rather, the attorney general wants to restore the childcare tax credit, which he suggests will be more helpful to low- and middle-income families.

Cooper wants to expand Medicaid because it enables more low-income people to get health care, aids struggling rural hospitals and slows the cost increases of health-care premiums. Ten Republican governors have taken steps to expand Medicaid, which has a lot of business community support. McCrory looks increasingly isolated on this issue.

Cooper says economic developers throughout the state “have been seeking help from Raleigh, but they haven’t gotten it. We need better coordination and better support to ensure we aren’t missing out on opportunities.” We’ve heard that criticism anecdotally, but there’s certainly been no groundswell of opposition to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and its well-respected leader, Chris Chung. Cooper’s plan suggests a likely return to the more regional, less centralized economic development approach of past Democratic governors.

But there is an obvious groundswell of business opposition to HB2, giving Cooper a great talking point on economic-development issues. His point that McCrory doesn’t consider HB2 to be an obstacle for North Carolina — which was a clear point made by N.C. Commerce Secretary John Skvarla in a July Business North Carolina story — is a fundamental disagreement.

Gov. McCrory’s basic premise is that the Democrats left the state’s economy in a nasty mess after decades in power by 2012, and giving the reigns back to Cooper is too risky. The state has rebounded from the economic rout and there’s no reason to shift policies.

Cooper’s thrust is that McCrory isn’t showing sufficient leadership and won’t listen to business leaders who favor a more diverse, collaborative and progressive approach. He questions McCrory’s ability to corral support needed to make North Carolina’s economy competitive with other states.
McCrory trounced Democrat Walter Dalton by 12 percentage points in the 2012, when voters clearly wanted a change from traditional Raleigh approaches. It’s going to be a lot closer this time.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.
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