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McCrory, Cooper square off in N.C. Bar Association debate

Gov. Pat McCrory faced sharp criticism from state Attorney General Roy Cooper on taxes, education and McCrory’s support of HB2, during a wide-ranging debate hosted by the North Carolina Bar Association in Charlotte last week.

Cooper, a Democrat who hopes to unseat McCrory in November, said North Carolina has suffered from a “lack of leadership” under McCrory—something Cooper says he would change if he is voted into the governor’s mansion.

But McCrory fired back at Cooper for being part of the “good ol’ boy system,” which he said was responsible for the negative state of the state’s economy and education system when he took office in 2013. Cooper served in the General Assembly from 1986 to 2000 and supported tax increases and cuts to education and scientific research, McCrory said.

The June 24 debate at the Charlotte Westin offered a chance for the audience of mostly lawyers to see the stark contrasts between Cooper and McCrory.

McCrory fends off HB2 criticism

McCrory touted his first term as the start of a “Carolina Comeback,” which he said has resulted in budget surpluses and more than 200,000 new jobs.

But Cooper blasted the governor for pursuing what he called an “extreme social, partisan agenda.” Cooper pointed to the recent moves by PayPal and Deutsche Bank to cancel expansion plans in the wake of HB2.

The so-called bathroom bill bars transgender individuals from using public restrooms that do not correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificates. HB2 also eliminated local anti-discrimination measures for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents of the state. Additionally, HB2 effectively ended the right to sue for discrimination in state court, leaving federal court as the only option.

The law came in response to Charlotte’s adoption of an ordinance that extended some rights to gay and transgender people, including protections for transgender people who use public restrooms that match their gender identity.

“The governor continues to hurt the state’s economy with his doubling and tripling down on HB2,” Cooper said.

McCrory defended his decision to sign the bill into law, saying HB2 was the state’s answer to a national issue.

“The private sector shouldn’t be told by the mayor of Charlotte, the Charlotte City Council or the federal government how to run their businesses,” said McCrory, who is himself a former Charlotte mayor.

That said, just days after HB2 was adopted during a one-day special session, McCrory sought to temper criticism of his role in the HB2 debate by signing an executive order that rolled back some aspects of the law for government employees. McCrory’s executive order left the bathroom provisions in place.

McCrory, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have sued the Obama administration over a directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. The U.S. Justice Department has filed its own lawsuit against the state seeking an injunction to block enforcement of HB2 while a judge determines whether it is discriminatory.

Teacher pay, taxes and guns

When the topic turned to education, Cooper attacked McCrory for failing to bring teacher salaries in line with national averages.

“When I was in the state legislature, we had teacher salaries well above the national average,” Cooper said. “We need accountable teachers, and that accountability should come with higher pay.”

Cooper also criticized McCrory’s support of school vouchers for low-income students.

McCrory answered Cooper’s criticism by noting he had fought to raise teacher pay by $5,000 during his first year in office.

Teacher pay has been among the campaign’s most hotly contested subjects. The General Assembly is working on a budget compromise that is likely to include a raise for teachers in the state. The House proposed average teacher pay raises of 4.1 percent while the Senate offered 6.5 percent increases on average.

Taxes proved to be another issue that showed the differences between the two candidates.

McCrory accused Cooper of wanting to raise taxes at a time when the state is seeing the benefits of a low-tax environment. But Cooper said McCrory’s tax policies have done little to benefit middle-class North Carolinians.

Cooper said most of the governor’s tax cuts have gone to “corporate handouts.” But McCrory said Cooper learned the importance of using tax breaks to attract businesses to the state when he was a member of the General Assembly.

“Attorney General Cooper says one thing to one audience and another thing to another audience,” McCrory said. “He knows that we need some of that to compete with South Carolina and Georgia and other states. His tax policies would not make North Carolina competitive.”

Later in the debate, Cooper and McCrory took on the issue of gun control — a topic that did not come as a surprise given the mass shooting that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando earlier this month.

Cooper threw his support behind recent proposals to expand background checks for gun buyers and to bar those on terrorist watch lists from buying firearms.

“The governor and lawmakers are passing laws to allow more people to carry guns in more places,” Cooper said. “We should be trying to keep these things from happening by keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists, the mentally ill and criminals.”

McCrory countered by pointing to his efforts to reduce gun violence during his time as Charlotte mayor. McCrory said those efforts had a significant impact on the city’s firearm deaths. But he said Charlotte law enforcement often struggled to track down criminals because the state crime lab was a “disaster” under Cooper’s leadership.

“We ended up having to pay to build our own crime lab because the state’s was such a disaster,” McCrory said.

Gov can’t blame lawyers, Cooper says

Sticking with the topic of Charlotte politics, McCrory blasted Cooper for his recent call to cancel the Interstate 77 toll lane contract. The state Department of Transportation signed a 50-year deal with Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra, to build and operate toll lanes north of Charlotte to reduce congestion. But critics say the $660 million project, which broke ground last month, will cost too much and do little to reduce traffic.

State lawmakers have considered bills to cancel the contract. But those efforts have stalled because the state would have to pay estimated penalties of $300 million to kill the deal.

“This is another example of the good ol’ boy system benefitting those in power. We need to take the politics out of these decisions and return them to local governments,” McCrory said. “Cooper said he would never have signed the contract. But his lawyers were right there with us when we signed the contract.”

Cooper reiterated his call to cancel the contract, citing the recent bankruptcy of a Cintra spin-off company that built and operates a toll road in Texas.

“We need a transportation plan that actually gets us ready for the next decade,” Cooper said. “Besides, the governor can’t just blame his lawyers when he signs a bad deal.”

The latter comment drew laughs from the audience of lawyers.

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