By Justin Guillory, Think NC First

Since defeating the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, North Carolina Democrats and Governor Cooper have shown a new sense of confidence. It has been years since Democrats held any cards at all on Jones Street, but if the filing of their Medicaid expansion plan — an opening salvo in what could be a session-long endeavor — and Gov. Cooper’s recent budget proposal are any indication, Cooper and the Democrats expect to be players. But what power does veto-sustaining minorities actually give them?

North Carolina is not a unique case.  Several other states also contend with divided government featuring chief executives and hostile legislatures. Since Election Day four months ago, Think NC First (Think) has systematically studied similar political situations around the country. What can progressive-to-moderate governors accomplish when faced with legislative opposition?

States like Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania and Virginia are recent examples of Democratic governors facing Republican majorities (but not supermajorities) in their state legislatures. Think explored these examples, as well as, moderate Republican governors in Maryland and Massachusetts that face Democratic supermajorities.

In the cases of split control how can Governors make progress? 

If there’s any model of success that Gov. Cooper might want to emulate, it’s Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania who won a second term this November with nearly 58% of the vote.

But a close look at Gov. Wolf’s track record in the Keystone State shows that legislative success with a Republican legislature remains a tall task. In his first two years as governor, Wolf’s ambitious legislative agenda, including tax increases and new education spending, was quashed in a predictable budget fight.

In second half of his first term, Wolf’s posture changed. For instance, his third budget address called for: “…continuing to move Pennsylvania forward and making sure that Harrisburg moves away from the failed policies of the past by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy, shrinking the size of our government; getting rid of waste, while ensuring we are protecting seniors and education; fighting the opioid and heroin crisis; and putting more people to work.  It’s a new way and a better way.  It doesn’t raise taxes on people. “

Wolf’s successes came more from executive orders than legislative accomplishments. He was able to make incremental success on government efficiency, the opioid crisis, school safety, pay equity and overtime pay through executive actions.

Gov. Cooper could take a similar tact. There is room for incremental progress through executive action. But that is also why the current push for Medicaid expansion is so extraordinary.

Wolf was also able to expand Medicaid in Pennsylvania but his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, initiated the process through a federal waiver.  Wolf quickly changed course to implement a more progressive version Medicaid expansion, but he was able to act using executive power. Gov. Cooper doesn’t have that option as the General Assembly blocked Medicaid expansion and the Governor’s power to act unilaterally in a 2013 law.

If Cooper can convince the Republican legislature to move on any version of Medicaid expansion it would be a significant achievement for a Governor faced with opposite party control in the legislative branch. It’s something we don’t find often in this era of bitter partisanship.