ROCKINGHAM — Speaking at a fundraiser for state Sen. Gene McLaurin’s re-election campaign Thursday, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said lawmakers should be focused on moving the state forward.
He said that the people should choose leaders with integrity and common sense, saying politicians “don’t have to stoop to socially divisive issues.”
Cooper, who said he believed in stronger local governance, criticized the N.C. General Assembly’s current leadership, contending “Raleigh is busy trying to take power from local governments,” while lawmakers simultaneously complain about federal overreach.
“The leadership doesn’t understand the problems attracting good industry,” Cooper said, listing education and infrastructure as vital components.
Cooper, whose mother was a teacher, stressed the importance of education.
“We know what teachers can mean to the lives of all of us,” he said.
McLaurin, D-Richmond, mirrored Cooper’s sentiments on education in the wake of dueling state budget proposals to raise North Carolina teacher pay, which ranks 46th in the nation.
“Our teachers deserve to be paid at least at the national average,” McLaurin said.
The first-term senator said he went to Raleigh with “a rural North Carolina agenda” and advocated helping rural areas and residents who are in need.
“Part of our responsibility as state government is to help take care of people,” he said.
McLaurin faces two challengers in November’s general election, Republican Tom McInnis of Ellerbe and Libertarian P.H. Dawkins of Hamlet.
Following the event at Discovery Place Kids, Cooper took the time to answer questions regarding several state issues.
As head of the state Department of Justice, Cooper oversees the State Bureau of Investigation.
Lawmakers have introduced a measure that would move the agency out from under the attorney general’s office to the Department of Public Safety, a cabinet agency under the governor’s supervision.
Although the transfer is already in the House budget, it was inserted as an amendment into legislation the House passed Thursday beacuse of budget negotion delays. The vote was 75-39, along party lines with Democrats objecting.
“It’s bad public policy, no matter who’s governor or attorney general,” he said.
Cooper said he didn’t want to guess as to lawmakers’ motives, but said, “It’s hard to figure out why the want to do it.”
“The SBI, for over 77 years, has been an independent investigative body that has helped to root out public corruption,” he said.
Republicans say the move would grant the bureau more independence.
Cooper said sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys have weighed in on the topic, “and they don’t want to do it.”
“It’s a bad idea,” he said. “I hope they will see the light at some point.”
Cooper, who is expected to follow in the footsteps of Mike Easley and make the jump from attorney general to governor, gave even stronger hints about his intentions than he has in the past.
“I’m deeply concerned about where the state is headed, so I am making plans,” he said.
“It’s a little early for an official announcement, but it is important that we take our state in a positive direction and I want to be part of that solution,” he said. “So you’ll be hearing from me.”
A provision in the N.C. Farm Act of 2014 excludes environmental investigations of farming operations from the public record, allowing state inquiries to be hidden.
Although he recognizes that there has to be a balance in the public’s right to know regarding investigations, just as in law enforcement, Cooper said that provision” goes too far.”
“I think we should have a government that is as open as possible,” he said. “Sunshine makes laws better.”
Cooper, whose father was a farmer, said lawmakers “need to consider it very carefully because sunshine can be very important in reaching a just result.”
Over the past year, Gov. Pat McCrory’s office and municipalities including the eastern North Carolina town of Middlesex have come under scrutiny for staff-time surcharges applied to public records requests.
The fees, which can top $54 an hour and take effect after 30 minutes, are meant to reimburse cities for the time workers spend gathering and copying public documents.
“We contacted the governor’s office and told them that we believed that what they were doing violated the law,” Cooper said.
He said the governor’s office has since “dialed it back.”
Open-government groups say fees for workers’ time violate the state public records law, but government bodies point to a conflicting passage that allow “special service charges” in extreme cases.
“The law is there for a reason,” Cooper said. “All that should be charged is for reproduction of the documents.”
Cooper added that there are extraordinary circumstances, “but that has to be something that is far more than just providing a person to make copies.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-994-3111. ext. 16.