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Gov. Roy Cooper has been battling the General Assembly since even before he took office.

But as midterms loom and North Carolina’s political parties gear up for 2020, that fight is taking on a new form: Who gets credit for sparking the state’s successes, or solving its problems?

Right after it became clear that a Democrat would take over the Executive Mansion, the Republican majority in the General Assembly immediately started stripping Cooper of any power they could.

That’s touched off a tangled web of lawsuits still winding their way through the courts. [Longleaf story: The complete guide to Gov. Roy Cooper’s lawsuits against the legislature]

That battle will continue. But several new laws or budget provisions point to the new front. They appear geared toward making sure Cooper cannot take credit for things that would resonate with voters: Job announcements, disaster relief, environmental cleanup, and ending toll lane contracts among them.

Here’s a look at a couple of them.

Toll lanes

The planned tolls on I-77 near Charlotte are a potent political force. They are likely even responsible for Pat McCrory’s defeat. Cooper pledged to examine how to cancel the project in his campaign, and so far has taken very slow steps toward that end.

A provision buried deep in this past week’s budget adjustment bill1 would require Cooper to report at least two months in advance if the governor’s administration strikes a deal to modify or end the toll lane project. And to pay for it, the General Assembly will need to make an express appropriation.

This means that if any deal gets reached, the legislature can take the credit. If no deal comes to fruition, Cooper could still get the blame.

I-77 in Charlotte. Photo by Jon Dawson via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Jobs

While the governor’s office negotiates economic incentive deals, the new budget bill makes it easier for companies to qualify for them. The bar for what constitutes a “transformative project” and thus eligible for a special category of rebates will be significantly lowered.

Should North Carolina land a project somewhere between $1 billion and $4 billion in the next few years, the General Assembly can point to this new provision as the reason why.

Environment

The state is still figuring out how to deal with the GenX chemical spill in eastern North Carolina — and part of the budget bill puts funding toward studying the issue. But it also gives a detailed authorization for how the executive branch handles polluters.

The governor controls the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But the legislature has prescribed Cooper a very narrow path to take should he want to shut down a polluting company.

Cooper then gets stuck having to decide whether to try to stick blame for any delays on the legislature, or try to share credit on cleanup.

Cape Fear River. Photo by Stuart Borrett via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Disaster relief

Natural disasters are a fact of life in North Carolina, and Cooper spent this past week touring flood-damaged areas in the mountains.

Sensing some weakness in the Cooper administration on the issue, the General Assembly has taken what is generally a mundane item — transferring more money to a disaster relief contingency fund — and trumpeted it as a major accomplishment in the most recent budget bill.

Once again, it’s all about being able to take credit and shift blame.

The upshot

We knew this tension was going to be a theme for Cooper and the legislature in 2018, 2020 and beyond. The state economy is growing, and both sides have tried to use that to their advantage. Republicans in the General Assembly credit tax breaks, while Cooper pushes for more spending on public education.

But this year’s budget bill makes it apparent that the legislature plans to be heavily involved in roles traditionally assigned to the governor.

Why? Gov. Roy Cooper remains extremely popular statewide, with polls giving him a +20-point net approval rating or more.

If attacks won’t land, maybe seizing any credit will.

Cover photo shows Gov. Roy Cooper breaking ground on a Credit Suisse expansion in RTP. Photo by the governor’s office via Facebook.


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