Cooper's fight echoes Terry Sanford's

Published June 5, 2019

By Gary Pearce

Governor Roy Cooper has picked the same fight over North Carolina’s future that Terry Sanford picked more than 60 years ago.

The issue is the same. Then, powerful people in Raleigh wanted the legislature to pass corporate tax cuts. Sanford said that was wrong. He said North Carolina needed to invest in education.

This year, powerful legislators are calling for more corporate tax cuts on top of all those passed since 2011. Cooper says that’s wrong. He says North Carolina needs to invest in education and in health care to help children learn.

Go back 60 years – 62, to be exact, to 1957. Luther Hodges was Governor. Hodges was a retired textile executive who focused on recruiting new industry. He was known as the “businessman Governor,” He was, in a way, the state’s first two-term Governor; he had been elected lieutenant governor in 1952 and became Governor when William B. Umstead (for whom Umstead State Park is named) died in 1954.

After winning his own four-year term in 1956, Hodges proposed a budget that focused on corporate tax cuts. His package came from a study commission composed of business leaders. They said the tax cuts would bring North Carolina more business, more industry and more jobs.

Sanford, who was planning to run for Governor in 1960, took on Hodges. He called the Governor’s plan “dangerously wrong.” He said:

“The public school question is the most critical issue facing North Carolina today. We are not attracting new teachers. We could be damaging irreparably our schools for the next decade. What we do this year determines what kind of school leadership we have four and seven and ten years from now….

“But we are not going to lift ourselves by our bootstraps if we wait for increased income from new business before we fulfill our responsibility to the public schools.”

Sanford made education – and, yes, more funding for education – the keystone of his 1960 campaign for Governor. When he announced on February 4, 1960, he called for “a New Day” for North Carolina:

“(P)eople are becoming more and more aware of our shortcomings and are determined that now is the time when something must be done….This is a new day of opportunities. Let’s make it a new day for achievement. We are ready to go.”

Sanford won. As Governor, he pushed his program through a conservative legislature. He paid for the program with an unpopular sales tax on food. (For which he paid dearly politically.) He set North Carolina on a progressive path that fundamentally changed the state’s future – and set us apart from the rest of the South.

Sanford won North Carolina a reputation as a state that put education first. We maintained and built on that reputation for 50 years, under Democratic and Republican Governors and legislators. North Carolina became a magnet for smart people, for science, for research and for advanced-technology companies.

Now the fight is joined again. In a May 14 letter to legislators, Cooper wrote:

“The opportunity to make up for neglected education and health care funding is now. With the unbudgeted revenue announced this month, North Carolina can move to rebuild its schools and help children learn.”

He urged legislators to “prioritize education” and “remember the importance of health care.” He called for:

• A bigger pay raise for teachers, covering all teachers and beginning July 1.
• Better pay raises for school workers like teaching assistants and cafeteria workers.
• Funding for school safety, including counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and school resource officers.
• Funding for the UNC system.
• Funding for health care.
• Investing in early childhood, including Smart Start, pre-K and child care subsidies for working families.

Senator Phil Berger boasted: “This budget continues the policies that brought about our North Carolina success story.”

No, Senator. North Carolina’s real success story goes back to 1960, to Terry Sanford and forward-looking policies that have built up education and our economy for decades.