RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper urged lawmakers gathered Monday night to repeal the state's "bathroom bill" very soon, saying the law is "the dark cloud hanging over our state of promise" by harming North Carolina's economy and reputation.
Delivering his first State of the State speech to the Republican-controlled legislature and a statewide television audience, Cooper almost immediately addressed the law known as House Bill 2, which limits LGBT rights and the restrooms transgender people can use in schools and other government buildings.
Cooper, the attorney general for the past 16 years, narrowly defeated GOP Gov. Pat McCrory last fall with a platform that emphasized McCrory's support for HB2. He said people are sick of the law and wondering whether "this heavy anchor weighing us down" will be cut away.
"The law has damaged our state. The legislature must erase this law from our books," Cooper told House and Senate members gathered in the House chamber for the biennial gubernatorial speech. "It drains the energy from what should be our work for the people of this state."
Cooper and GOP legislators also have been entangled over what to do about the law, which has caused some businesses and sporting events to spurn North Carolina in the name of fighting discrimination, leading to moving last month's NBA All-Star game out of Charlotte and NCAA championships from the state this academic year.
Compromises have crumbled since December. Pressure has increased to find a solution before the NCAA soon decides whether to remove North Carolina locations from bids to host championship events through 2022. Cooper wants a complete HB2 repeal, but Republicans say some additional restrictions are necessary. GOP leaders have downplayed the economic effect of the law and emphasized concerns about bathroom safety.
"Pass a compromise repeal that works to eliminate discrimination and brings back jobs, sports and entertainment and I will sign it — as long as it truly gets the job done," he said, adding "let's do it this week. It's time to move on."
Delivering a pre-recorded GOP response, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, blamed Cooper for killing recent GOP compromises to eliminate HB2 by discouraging Democrats from supporting them.
"Where there is opportunity to work with Gov. Cooper, we will be the first to extend a hand," Berger said. "But we need — and the voters expect — the governor to reciprocate."
Cooper addressed General Assembly leaders who have fought him in court and in public since he was declared the election winner before he took office Jan. 1, GOP legislators passed laws that stripped Cooper of his powers. Cooper sued over the laws and the litigation is pending.
Although his budget proposal released two weeks ago was already been panned by GOP senators as bloated, Cooper weighed his remarks heavily toward public education and job training initiatives within in that Republicans seem likely to support in principle.
"To find the common ground we seek, let's listen to North Carolinians urging us to set aside divisive social issues and political power struggles," he said in his nearly 40-minute address.
Those initiatives included higher teacher pay, the revival of a college loan forgiveness program for aspiring teachers and legislation to combat the state's growing opioid addiction problem. He cited gubernatorial guests in the House gallery to reinforce his lobbying.
Cooper bolstered his earlier announced goals to make North Carolina by 2025 a top-ten leader among the states in pre-K participation, high school graduation rates and the percentage of adults with higher education degrees. He pushed his effort for community college scholarships and to revive a program providing forgivable loans for college students who agree to become teachers.
While the state economy has been recovering since the Great Recession, Cooper said there are still problems for regular North Carolina residents.
"I want North Carolinians to be better educated, healthier and have more money in their pockets," Cooper said, adding that financially too many people "feel left behind by a system that isn't listening to them and an economy that isn't rewarding them for their hard work."
But Berger called Cooper "the left's new champion" and his vision a "mirage" that would return to days of state government overspending and higher unemployment rates when Democrats were in charge.