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Friday, May 17, 2024

Roy Cooper interview: A Governor who means business

Cooper spoke recently with Business North Carolina about his time as governor and his involvement in business-related issues. What follows was edited for clarity.

Strident disputes with GOP powers haven’t blocked Roy Cooper from helping land primo employers.

When Gov. Roy Cooper leaves office in early 2025 after two four-year teams, his tenure
will go down as one of the best for jobs and economic growth in the state’s history.

In the past seven years, North Carolina has added more than 550,000 jobs, according
to Department of Commerce data. Average annual employment growth over the past five years has been 2%, outperforming the national average of
1.2%, according to IBISWorld. The state’s employment rate decreased from 5.1% in January 2017 to 3.5% in December 2023.

The gross state product expanded from $547 billion in 2017 to $716 billion, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve. That’s a 30.9% increase, slightly better than the growth of the overall U.S. gross domestic product. For the past two years, CNBC has named North Carolina the No. 1 state for business.

Cooper has recruited other companies expected to add jobs after he’s left the Governor’s Mansion. Toyota Motor plans to add more than 5,000 jobs in the state when it opens a battery plant near Greensboro in 2025. Vietnamese electronic vehicle maker VinFast has plans to hire 7,500 workers at its Chatham County plant after it opens.

He’s also pushed legislation to force more environmentally friendly energy production, and the Medicaid expansion in 2023 is providing more health insurance for workers.

“Gov. Cooper will likely spend his final year in office continuing to promote business opportunities in solar and wind energy,” says Tony Copeland, N.C. Secretary of Commerce during Cooper’s first term. “He’ll continue to articulate leadership on the workforce development issue, which has been an interest of his throughout his tenure.”

Copeland says Cooper has made workforce a priority with programs like Finish Line grants, support for Career and Technical Education, myFutureNC, and the drive for
a more results-driven workforce development network.

To be sure, Cooper’s had tussles and misses too. Last year, he criticized the N.C. Chamber for allegedly blocking minority judge appointments. Chamber CEO Gary Salamido called the claims “meritless and beneath the dignity of your office.” And health insurer Centene backed out of its East Coast headquarters in Charlotte, a deal in which the
state and Mecklenburg County had promised $450 million in economic incentives in 2020 in return for more than 3,000 pledged jobs.

Copeland says Cooper is not a “a front-and-center economic development governor in the mold of Jim Hunt, but times are different now.” Hunt served four terms and was involved in a variety of efforts to promote technology-based economic development, including establishing the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

BNC: Can you talk about your last year as governor and what you’d like to accomplish?

COOPER: I came in wanting a state where people are better educated, where they’re healthier, where they have more money in their pockets. We’ve made significant strides in accomplishing that mission statement, but this year we want to continue the streak of North Carolina being the best state in the country for business.

We’re looking at nontraditional ways of doing that [such as] really focusing on veterans. North Carolina is one of the most military friendly veteran states. We are working to help people with disabilities and create ways to make sure they can be part of the workforce. We’re working on a massive re-entry effort, getting people in the criminal justice system into the workforce, to give employers more opportunities.

I want to make sure we continue our efforts with public schools and education because I’m very concerned that if we want to continue to be first in business, we can’t become last in education. Right now, we could be heading that way if we don’t make some changes.

BNC: When you look back at the previous seven years, what have been your biggest accomplishments?

COOPER: When I took office, North Carolina was in a nosedive internationally because of HB 2 (the bill blocked people born as biological males from entering women’s bathrooms in public facilities.) We had businesses and events boycotting the state. I came in, and we worked with a Republican supermajority legislature. We cut a deal to make sure that we repealed it. I worked with them on making the right calls on performance-based incentives, and look at us now. During my first seven years, we were able to significantly curtail the lurch toward cultural wars that this legislature sometimes wanted to engage in. I think that’s helped us.

I think we have cooperatively worked on recruitment. There have been times when I’ve had Democratic and Republican legislators sitting with me at the table, working to lure businesses to come and expand in North Carolina.

And we’ve expanded Medicaid to 600,000 more North Carolinians. That’s going to help businesses because look who providers go to when they have an indigent patient. They usually go to the private sector to recover the funding. And when we have more people who are going to be able to be insured, and most of them will be working North Carolinians, then that’s going to put less pressure on private insurance premiums, and this is going to be a win for businesses.

We also worked together to require the power sector to get to carbon zero by 2050, and
to get to a 70% reduction by 2030. I believe that has put us on the map to become a clean energy epicenter. Look what’s happened. We have the largest hybrid and EV battery plant, maybe in the country, coming to Greensboro. We have the supply chain manufacturers making component parts for these batteries moving to the rural parts of our state. The front edge of the clean energy revolution will put money in the pockets of North Carolina families.

We’ve made significant accomplishments and are beginning to implement the largest infrastructure investment in a generation. We’re actually going to be able to connect every single household and every single business to high-speed internet, which is a necessity for business. I’ve already talked to small businesses that now have access to global markets that didn’t have it before. Farmers now are getting it. Medical providers are using it in their daily work, particularly in mental and behavioral health.

BNC: Will businesses stop coming if we don’t continue to improve education and infrastructure?

COOPER: I feel good about where we are in improving our infrastructure. I believe that we can meet the infrastructure needs of the growing state and that is an important part of this.

There are a couple of things that worry me. One is the legislature’s reckless decision to move the corporate tax to
zero and to continue to reduce the income tax for the wealthiest. If you look out, that revenue is not going to be replaced, and we’re not going to be able to meet the needs of the growing state.

I’m not talking about raising taxes here. I’m against raising taxes. But what they need to do is stop (lowering them.) I don’t hear CEOs complaining about the 2.5% corporate tax rate in North Carolina. I do not hear them complaining about the income tax. What I hear them talk about is the need for a well-trained workforce. This is very shortsighted to shrink the government and get political gain here.

People are coming to this state because of the potential for growth. We’ve had a reverence for education for 150 years. We have the best array of public and private universities in the country, and we have the best community college system in the country. We have one of the most innovative early childhood investment programs in the country. We have
good K-through-12 public schools at risk right now.

We have all of the ingredients to remain successful. But if we’re going to give $4 billion to private schools, that’s taxpayer money that is needed to educate. I’m not against private schools, but what I am against is using public money for private schools at the expense of public schools. And that is what is going to happen.

What we need to do is not be toward the bottom. No other state invests less of their gross state product in public education than North Carolina. That is where we are falling back. There are great things happening in our public schools. The one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree upon is that a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every school solves most of your problems of public education. And right now, teachers are underpaid and under appreciated.  

It’s a money-making political movement that trashes public schools and pulls money out of public schools for unaccountable private schools. And I think that’s wrong on almost every level, and we are headed to real problems if we continue on this path.

BNC: Do you think business leaders are speaking up enough or sufficiently about the possible fallout from renewed cultural war?

COOPER: When you think about all the great things that have happened, it has been a strong push by North Carolina’s business community that has helped to get us there. When we talk about the investment in early childhood education, and Smart Start, the business community has been there.

The thing that I hear most about from them right now is concerns about the workforce. We’re creating all these jobs that are going to require so many skills. If there is anything that keeps me up at night, it’s will we have this great workforce for all of these jobs that have been created?

I think the business community needs collectively to raise their voices and say that instead of continuing to slash these taxes, invest less in education, say that we really need more quality childcare. It is the triple play. It’s quality early childhood education for the child. It’s an ability to earn money for the parent, and it’s a member of the workforce for that business.

We do need the business community to use their muscle to make sure that the educational opportunities meet the demands of the workforce that’s going to be required today and tomorrow. I do believe the business community is going to have to make the workforce a priority with political leaders to make them understand how critical this is.

BNC: Anything you can tell us about conversations with Apple in the Research Triangle Park?

COOPER: We’re bullish on Apple. We’re really excited that they’re coming and building their East Coast campus here. They already have a lot of people in the MetLife building. They are excited about coming here and expanding.

It’s interesting how the pandemic has affected workforce decision-making by businesses. One day I met with the business leaders of Centene, and they told me they’re going to reduce their commercial office space nationwide and they’re not coming to that $550 million campus in Charlotte. They say their workforce has become more productive at home and that they would have a revolt if they brought them back to the office. So they make this business decision.

I’m scheduled with the Apple people the next day. Oh my gosh, they were just the opposite. They were like, “We’re going to collaborate. We’ve got to be in the same room. We’re going to build our campus in the Triangle. We’re going to change some of the things to make it more homey to make it more inviting, so that people will come to feel safe to be there.”

We’ve got to be ready for the different needs of businesses.

BNC: What’s your take on NC Innovation, which passed the legislature last year with a $500 million, two-year appropriation?

COOPER: I would rather invest in early childhood education. I have concerns about NC Innovation and whether they’re going to be able to invest in the right way. I want them to be successful. But there needs to be a lot of thought about taking taxpayer money and how we invest it in that way.

The fact that we’re the No. 1 state for business, the credit goes to North Carolina’s workforce. It goes to the people of the state because I think that’s the main reason why people come to North Carolina. We have an amazing team. There are a lot of things where we don’t choose to use incentives. If it’s not a big financial plus for the state, we’re not going to commit the state to it. But when it’s time for me to come in and do something, then I’m there doing it. I’m talking with their management team or their CEO.

Not long after I became governor, we were recruiting Toyota for its automobile plant. I made a combat trip to Tokyo at the last minute to try to convince them that North Carolina was the place that they needed to be. And they ended up choosing Alabama. So we did something that they said that they had never seen before. We said, “Thank you, we really want you to come in for a debrief. We want you to tell us where our shortcomings are. We want you to tell us as much as you can, why you made this decision.”

BNC: What did they tell you?

COOPER:They said, “OK, you don’t have title to all of your megasite. We’re concerned about making sure that we’ve got the land. No. 2, you’ve got these power lines with Duke Energy, and I know you say they’ll move them, but we’re not quite sure that you can get it done in time because we want to start quickly.” So we continued our contacts with Toyota. I’ve talked several times to Chairman Akio Toyoda and now new CEO Koji Sato. I met with him in Tokyo when I went last time. They continued talking with us, and then they decided to come for the EV battery plant. We’d so much rather have this battery plant than a
gas-powered automobile plant. This is a situation where a window closes and a big door opens. We listened, we learned, and we continued relationships with the company where we ended up with what’s going to be 5,100 jobs.

It’s the kind of thing you can do when you have a mind to create jobs. We know the
private sector creates the jobs, but the government can act as a catalyst in that process. The legislature trusted our team to make good decisions. We talk to the leadership
of the General Assembly, both Republicans and Democrats, about what we want to do.
And 99% of the time we’ve been on the same page of where we need to invest and what we need to do. 

Cooper’s confidants: The governor’s key advisers.

Julia White, senior adviser, Former senior policy adviser at the N.C. Department of Justice. She oversees the policy, communications and budget areas for the governor.
Kristi Jones, chief of staff Got her start in politics working as deputy political director for Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt’s successful 1996 campaign.
Stephen Bryant, deputy chief of staff He oversees intergovernmental issues, appointments, including boards and commissions and constituent services.
Eric Fletchers, general counsel Previously a partner at the Brooks, Pierce law firm in Raleigh where his practice focused on the intersection of law and public policy.
Ken Eudy, senior adviser The Stanly County native is a former journalist, Democratic Party executive director and public relations firm owner.

 

Chris Roush
Chris Roush
Chris Roush is executive editor of Business North Carolina. He can be reached at croush@businessnc.com.

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