Governor Cooper State of the State 2021
Mr. President Pro Tempore, Mr. Speaker, Members of the General Assembly, Council of State, Mr. Chief Justice and members of the Supreme Court, members of the Court of Appeals, Cabinet Secretaries, and to my family: My amazing wife Kristin and our three wonderful daughters, who are with us in spirit and watching via PBS North Carolina TV.
Good evening. I am honored to be with you tonight. We gather after a year we could not have imagined. And now we look to a future that can be even better than we imagine.
Our response to an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation challenge is showing us clearly that North Carolinians are resilient and ready. The State of our State is strong.
And that’s because the character of our communities is even stronger. We have shown we are compassionate. Amid a year of suffering and loss, North Carolinians have never stopped showing up for each other. Our health care workers have sacrificed their own safety to save lives. Neighbors have delivered meals. Families have found new ways to stay connected. Songs from grandchildren have poured through nursing home windows. Educators have engaged and nurtured their students even through the computer screen. There are endless examples of kindness and strength that we have shown each other.
We have lost a lot this year. Painfully, the 12,560 North Carolinians who died with COVID-19 from parents and children to favorite teachers, community volunteers and many more. Their lives have forever enriched ours and we will carry them with us always. And not only have we lost loved ones, we have also lost time to sickness, lost learning, lost jobs, lost peace of mind.
One thing this pandemic laid bare is the inequities that were already here. The critical need to strengthen our public schools and require a sound, basic education for all our children as our constitution mandates. The gaps in high-speed internet access. The unlivable wages that require many hardworking North Carolinians — just to make ends meet — to take on multiple jobs that don’t provide health insurance.
But if we can harness all we have learned from our loss, we can boost opportunities for all North Carolinians. The opportunity to get the training needed for a better-paying job. The opportunity to get health insurance. The opportunity to get connected to telemedicine, homework, and loved ones who live far away. The opportunity to prosper.
This past year has impacted every single person in our state and has required the collective effort of North Carolinians to stay safe and save lives.
From the beginning, I pledged that we would listen to health experts and follow the science to protect our state. And we have done just that. The decisive actions we have taken saved lives and prevented our hospitals from being overwhelmed. I would like to recognize and thank health care workers across our state. Your commitment and courage have made all the difference.
Our state’s response to the pandemic has been strong. And every phase of it has required North Carolinians from Cherokee to Chowan to step up and do their part, including the people in this room tonight.
Farmers, restaurant cooks, grocery store workers kept us fed. Educators, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers helped our children to get meals, stay safe, and learn. Law enforcement, firefighters and EMTs kept us protected. Passionate peaceful protesters of all stripes challenged us and reminded us the importance of protecting our freedom of speech. Faith leaders prayed for, helped, and comforted us. Scientists and researchers at our great universities helped discover and make vaccines and treatments. Moms, dads, grandparents, children, neighbors, friends — everyday people — endured together and helped each other.
You see, North Carolinians step up in times of crisis. And while our special guests cannot be in the building tonight, I want to recognize a few North Carolinians who have made a real difference.
A lot of North Carolina companies at their own economic risk changed what they were doing and started making things we needed right then to save lives.
Instead of just making furniture, Custom Contracts Furnishings in High Point teamed up with a local fabrics company to make medical gowns. They hired 50 new employees and made over a million gowns for our state and other customers.
In March of 2020, right as the pandemic began, Parkdale Mills in Gastonia worked with a group of companies to put together a reusable mask — supplying over 600 million of them across the country.
This kind of ingenuity and resourcefulness helped us get desperately-needed PPE to frontline workers when they didn’t have enough.
That North Carolina ingenuity unfolded across the state in many ways.
Felecia Young, a math teacher at Knox Middle School in Salisbury, knew remote learning would be a challenge. So she went the extra mile to make it fun. She produced videos with music, dance, and song that helped you with math even if you didn’t want them to. She kept in such close contact with her students and their families, she earned the nickname “Mama Young.”
North Carolina National Guard Lieutenant Colonel David Walliser (WALLACE-er) coordinated vaccine sites along with Emergency Management and state and local health officials across the state and helped organize the federally-supported site in Greensboro. As he said, “No great achievement is achieved alone.” Col. Walliser knew that with all of us working together we could get more people vaccinated.
And, of course, there are endless stories of our heroic frontline health workers who fought this pandemic tirelessly with courage and compassion. One of these is Natesha Fields, a nurse and manager at Carolina East Medical Center in New Bern. She had the double challenge of caring for her patients and her staff. From dealing with PPE shortages to caring for dying patients to supporting her staff members who were working long hours amid their own sacrifices, she kept things running and kept people safe.
Natesha, David, Felecia, Custom Contracts Furnishing, and Parkdale Mills and so many other people and companies in our state stepped up. And I am so grateful for all of them.
And now it’s time for us to step up. The elected leaders. North Carolinians want us to work together like they have had to. Members of the legislature, we know we can find common ground because we have done it before. Our differences often get the attention, but our cooperation got billions of dollars in relief funds to people who needed it. You passed and I signed legislation to provide funding to rebuild after natural disasters. We passed the Build NC bonds for better roads. We landed tens of thousands of good-paying jobs with strategic and accountable economic incentives. We got rid of the discriminatory HB2. We raised the age for juveniles in the criminal justice system. And just last month together we got more children safely into their classrooms.
And we’re working with each other on pandemic response. We recognized that thousands of North Carolinians were threatened with eviction and power shutoffs during the pandemic. My administration created and you funded the HOPE program to make payments directly to landlords and utilities to keep people in their homes with the lights on and it’s already helped over 36,000 families and paid out almost $125 million.
Together we’re helping small business owners bounce back with federal funds for their rent and utilities. One of these is The Bar-B-Q Center in Lexington that’s been family-owned and open since 1955. This money allowed them to keep their doors open, pay and keep their employees, while still serving great barbecue.
You passed and I signed legislation waiving ABC permit fees, saving struggling bar and restaurant owners millions, directing federal funds to schools to keep them safe, providing students with summer school and with better ways to learn to read. And we know we must do so much more.
We often have our differences in these chambers, but the people of North Carolina should know that at times, when it mattered, their leaders stepped up. And now we need to do it again.
One way is fighting through this pandemic together, the right way. Though every loss hurt, North Carolina ranks low among the states in COVID-19 deaths per capita during the pandemic. During the same period North Carolina ranks low among states in job losses per capita. We’ve saved lives during the pandemic and deployed vaccines to bring our economy on strong. We are doing this the right way. Almost half of our state’s adults have had at least a first shot of vaccine, and almost 40 percent are fully vaccinated. We’re doing even better with our 65 and over population with more than 77 percent with at least one shot and more than 72 percent fully vaccinated. That’s remarkable. Every dose is another person saved, another family closer to immunity.
Now, think what more we can do if we keep working together. Our future success as a state depends on us getting health care to working people who don’t have it.
Several of you top legislators from both parties sat with Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen and me on the North Carolina Council for Health Care Coverage, and we unanimously agreed on a set of principles. Some were straight forward: Get more people covered with health insurance. Make people healthier. Use tax dollars wisely.
Others were more complicated: Make health care more fair. And reach rural areas.
The opportunity to do all these things is there if we expand Medicaid. And circumstances about Medicaid expansion have changed dramatically since we debated it in the last budget. First, even more federal dollars — our tax money — are available in unprecedented amounts for the last few states that have not expanded. That can make our rural hospitals thrive, provide mental health and keep working people healthy. Second, your push to transition Medicaid to managed care is happening in about two months, and you have said this will make Medicaid more efficient and save taxpayer money. Third, people who’ve lost their jobs and their employer-sponsored health insurance during this pandemic desperately need this help.
We hear time and again from small businesses about the urgent need for Medicaid expansion. One business owner who has been fighting for it is Cassandra Brooks. She operates childcare centers in Clayton and Garner. Her centers cared for the children of grocery store clerks, nurses, and other frontline workers who had to work in-person all through the pandemic. Cassandra had a friend and co-worker die from a stroke when she could not afford treatment for her high blood pressure. She has seen people without health insurance get sick with COVID-19 and not be able to get the care they needed. One in five childcare providers don’t have health insurance. That’s not right.
Expanding Medicaid does all the things we agreed on in our bipartisan council meetings. It gets more people covered. It makes people healthier. It uses tax dollars wisely and reduces health care costs for businesses. It makes health care more fair. It reaches rural areas. Let’s make a deal. Let’s get this done.
A healthier state means a healthier workforce that is ready for the better-paying jobs we’re bringing here. In 2019, I and the bipartisan leaders of the legislature, business, and education stood together to make a promise. We pledged that in the next decade, 2 million more adult North Carolinians will have a degree or trade certification.
Now we have our best chance to keep that promise. Today, we can join together to offer all North Carolinians who want to reach their full potential through higher education the chance to afford it. With our great community colleges, University System, and private colleges, we have the best training grounds in America. With the federal American Rescue Plan and state resources, we have the funding. With businesses already here and coming soon, we have the good paying jobs. Now we need to put it all together to make education and training more affordable for everyone.
Now you might have heard today that a little technology company from California has decided to move here. In yet another tremendous accomplishment for our state, today we stood together and announced that Apple has chosen North Carolina for its first new campus and engineering hub in the United States in more than 20 years. And that makes 11 companies that have announced thousands of jobs in both rural and urban areas in just the past two months.
The good jobs are already here and they’re going to keep on coming. Let’s make sure our people can afford to get the education and training to land them.
We know that people can succeed if we break down the financial barriers keeping them from their goals.
Lexine Merrill was in her third semester as a nursing student at Central Piedmont Community College when unexpected medical bills came on top of a needed car repair. She thought she would have to drop out, but a Finish Line Grant helped her afford to stay in school. She graduated in December and is working as a critical care nurse in Monroe right when we need her most. Her story is a testament that even a small amount of financial help can turn students into skilled workers to fill these high-demand jobs.
The CEOs will tell you they need these highly trained people right now and we need to invest in more community college and university scholarships immediately. These same CEOs will tell you that investing in education at the back end is important but investing in our children earlier may be even more critical.
Our pledge for getting two million more adults trained and educated by 2030 must begin with more children getting high quality pre-K and a healthy start at birth. More children who learn to read in elementary school. More children inspired to learn trades in middle school. And more well-paid educators who can guide children as well as adults getting trained for a second career.
And that means paying teachers more. If we want to recruit and keep the best educators, we need to pay them better. Too many of our teachers are working multiple jobs — and it’s still not enough. Because of our budget dispute last time our educators did not get a raise in the last budget cycle. We need to make up for that in this year’s budget.
Education and health care will get us well on our way. But to cement North Carolina’s spot as best in the nation for business and industry, we have to solidify the state’s backbone. Its infrastructure — schools, water and sewer, roads, bridges, transit — and also its pathways for information. High speed internet is vital for education and telemedicine but also for every person, from small business owner and farmer to big corporation and hospital.
In Hoke County, Dr. Karen Smith began using telemedicine to care for patients with opioid addiction, and when the pandemic hit she realized it could help even more. She carefully planned to continue her in-person medical care, but many of her patients were hesitant to come in at the height of the pandemic, and a lot of them didn’t have internet access. So Dr. Smith extended her office’s wifi to the parking lot and offered tablets for patient use. This meant those with limited access to technology could still get the care they needed through telemedicine.
The pandemic and the resulting necessary expansion of technology have flung us a decade ahead. The future world where we work from home, see a doctor, and connect over screens is thrust on us right now. But if you don’t have the access, the screen, or the money to subscribe you’re left out and left behind.
We have a plan and the money to stretch high-speed internet to our state’s farthest corners. And we should use them both to get this done.
And let’s boost businesses that were hardest hit by the pandemic with some direct help — restaurants, hotels, conventions, hospitality and tourism. Let’s get people back in the work force and help them get the training they need to land the jobs.
And a lot them will be clean energy jobs. Look, scientists concur that the climate crisis is real and that we need to lower carbon emissions. But aside from that, clean energy is where the great-paying jobs are going to be. Let’s get ahead of other states and lead this industry in North Carolina. I’m asking you to expand access to clean energy technologies, invest in clean energy economic development, promote offshore wind, and build the clean energy workforce to catalyze North Carolina’s economy. This industry is racing toward us with thousands of good-paying jobs that will strengthen our economy and our planet. We are already ahead in solar energy and with new offshore wind and its lucrative supply chain, we can put money in North Carolina pockets.
And as we work to build our infrastructure, we need to build the school buildings our kids deserve, and strengthen the community colleges and universities where we’re training the next great scientists, engineers, nurses and welders. We can enrich our lives with investments in parks, museums, and historic sites. We’re seeing the lowest interest rates. We can afford it, it will create jobs, and we’re never going to get a better deal. So let’s come together and pass a strong bond referendum so we can get this done.
All of these important steps are needed to build a stronger and more prosperous future. But we can’t succeed in the future without reckoning with our past and, unfortunately, our present. We must face head on the stark reality of systemic racism, and how it hurts people and leaves them behind — who gets to see a doctor, who gets hired for a job, who gets charged with a crime, who gets prison time, who gets killed. Over the past year, and just in the past week, we’ve seen the harm suffered by too many people of color in our state and across the country. And I want to say clearly: We must all stand together to stop racial injustice in North Carolina. Everyone should have opportunity and everyone should be able to feel safe in their own homes and communities without fear of authority who should be there to protect them.
In all the areas that are important for people’s success — health care, education, economic strength, the justice system — we must confront systems that favor some and harm others. And we must fix them.
Fellow North Carolinians, today our state is operating under a budget that was enacted in 2018 because we couldn’t agree on one last time. Think about how much the world has changed since 2018.
I’m here now, at your invitation, to give my perspective about the needs and challenges of our people. And I’m here to tell you that my budget tackles those needs and challenges. There are some really good ideas in there. There’s going to have to be some give and take in order for us to get this done. I don’t want to have to veto the budget, and I will do my part to see that we have a budget and I expect you to do yours. And I want to see a budget that has THREE signatures — Speaker Moore’s, Senator Berger’s, and mine. Our people deserve it.
To the legislators in the room: we’ve agreed before, let’s find ways to do it again, and keep moving our state forward. Let’s agree to listen more to each other and act in good faith to get things done. We’re already making progress on that.
The challenges we face are too great to do otherwise. They are not easy to solve. But we have the opportunity and the unprecedented resources to face them head-on. To get to the root of problems. To imagine and innovate rather than doubt and tolerate. To fight discrimination and promote justice that opens doors even wider to diversity and equity. In a year of hardship and loss, we owe it to ourselves and each other — and, as leaders, we owe it to the people who elected us — to build a state that is truly more educated, equitable, healthier, and prosperous.
And to act with the compassionate resilience that has gotten us through this pandemic. North Carolinians kept each other safe. Taught each other. Saved each other. Mourned for and loved each other. Prayed for each other. This is the North Carolina way, and we must heed the lessons we have learned.
I believe that North Carolina is Strong, Resilient and Ready to face the challenges of the future. I believe that we will rebuild from this pandemic to be even stronger than before. And I believe that we can roar into the future together, creating a shared recovery that ensures our best days lie ahead.
I have never been prouder to call myself a North Carolinian. I have never had a stronger faith in God. I have never been more honored or more committed to serve all of you as your Governor. And I have never been more certain that North Carolina’s future is bright. Thank you, God Bless all of You, and God Bless North Carolina and the United States of America.