Unemployed workers, tax cuts and school choice were topics of contention Wednesday night as incumbent Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest met in Raleigh for the first and only gubernatorial debate.
Cooper’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was at the forefront of the debate. Forest criticized Cooper for not fully reopening schools during the health crisis.
If elected, Forest said he would let local communities decide how to reopen schools safely right away. The governor accused Forest of having an ulterior motive in his campaign push to reopen brick-and-mortar schools.
“It is stunning to me that he would use children as political pawns during the middle of a pandemic,” Cooper said. “But what Dan Forest really wants to do with our public schools, he wants to starve them for funding, and then use those tax dollars to help rich people send their children to private schools, using vouchers.”
Cooper said instead of boosting school vouchers, the state should increase teacher pay, one of the issues the governor and the Republican-led North Carolina Legislature often have disagreed on.
Forest argued recent teacher pay increases by the General Assembly placed North Carolina above other southeastern states for education funding.
“But he probably doesn’t know that because he’s vetoed every single budget since he’s been governor, including every single teacher pay raise,” Forest said.
Cooper said he vetoed the budgets because budget writers favored corporate tax cuts over education, which “hurt” public schools just like private school vouchers.
Forest said the state’s private school voucher program, which is income based, gives the most impoverished children a chance to get a better education. Vouchers also give parents the flexibility to choose where and how their children should be educated, he said.
“Well, I think parents should be able to choose,” Forest said. “I think we should continue to improve all forms of education.”
Cooper also advocated for a full expansion of Medicaid, another cause of division between him and GOP lawmakers that left the state without a biennial budget last year. Cooper said raising the partially federal-funded program’s income eligibility requirements would help thousands of North Carolinians who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Forest said the best way to help unemployed people is to reopen the economy and get them back in the workforce.
“Put your time and your energy and your effort and your money into protecting the vulnerable people to keep them from getting the virus,” Forest said. “Let everybody else go back to work. Then you don’t have to worry about their health insurance at the same level. They’ll have a job again. They’ll have insurance.”
Forest said it would take years to fix the damage caused by Cooper’s COVID-19 shutdowns on the economy, but Forest fell short of saying if he would increase taxes to support the state’s recovery.
“We are going to have to figure this out,” Forest said. “This gonna be one of the most difficult things we’ve ever done in state government.”
Cooper said the state would not need to increase taxes but must stop tax cuts and giveaways to corporations and the wealthy. He also argued maintaining COVID-19 restrictions will keep businesses safe and boost consumer confidence in the economy.
Forest slammed Cooper for his administration’s tax incentive programs that reward companies for locating to North Carolina.
“You can’t say, ‘Oh, we don’t want tax cuts, but we’re going to give people tax money when they come to the state,’ ” Forest said. “It doesn’t work that way, governor.”
Voters will decide who will acquire the executive position in the state Nov. 3. Early voting starts Thursday.