This afternoon, with much pomp and circumstance, the General Assembly released a proposed fix for its self-imposed class-size crisis
, which school districts around the state feared would strain their resources, as the legislature had created what was, in essence, an unfunded mandate. And so, at a press conference today, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore unveiled what their press release called “an aggressive effort to improve student outcomes in the early grades by phasing in smaller class sizes and lower student-to-teacher ratios in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, providing millions of additional state dollars to fund special subject area teachers and eliminating the state's Pre-K waiting list.”
Sounds good, right? It’s the kind of relief school districts, especially urban school districts, had been begging for over the last year. Berger and Moore’s proposal, which was endorsed by the N.C. Association of School Administrators, phases in the K–3 class-size mandate over the next four years, while giving districts $70 million a year to cover the expenses of hiring more teachers. What’s more, the bill increases funds for pre-K programs, up to $91 million a year.
Again, sounds good—until you read the thing
See, HB 90 does a lot more than address class sizes. There are also two provisions Governor Cooper and legislative Democrats are almost certain to oppose—which the Republicans can then use as a political cudgel, accusing them of being anti-education.
This is the North Carolina General Assembly, after all. You didn’t think this thing would be neat and tidy, did you?
The first has to do with Cooper’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation fund
—the $58 million the developers of the controversial natural-gas pipeline
paid the state to set up a fund to mitigate any environmental damage. The legislature’s bill would essentially take that money out of the governor’s control. No longer would it be used for mitigation; now it would be routed to school systems in the counties through which the ACP runs.
The second—and probably the ultimate poison pill for Democrats—is the latest salvo in Cooper’s war with the legislature over the constitution of the state’s election board. Last month, you’ll recall, the N.C. Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s reconfiguration of the board
, preserving Cooper’s control of the body instead of evenly dividing eight seats among Republicans and Democrats, as the legislature wished. Under the old system—which the Supreme Court effectively reinstated—the governor’s party controlled three of the board’s five seats.
This ordeal has gone on since before Cooper took office. Soon after the 2016 election, the legislature—with the lame-duck Pat McCrory still in the governor’s chair—passed a series of laws designed to strip the governor of his power, including a remake of the elections board. Cooper sued, and a state court sided with him. So the legislature quickly tweaked the bill and passed it again. And Cooper sued again. Because of the legal wrangling, and because Cooper refused to appoint members, the legislature’s eight-member Bipartisan Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement sat vacant.
With the Supreme Court having weighed in against them, Republicans are now taking a third bite at the apple.
The newest rewrite adds a ninth member to the board—an unaffiliated voter—in addition to four Dems and four Republicans. As before, the governor would make the appointments based on lists provided by the state parties, and for the final seat, the board members would give the governor a list of unaffiliated or minor-party options to choose from. And now, according to the legislation: “The Governor shall make all appointments promptly upon receipt of the list of nominees from each nominating entity and in no instance shall appoint later than 30 days after receipt of the list.”
As WRAL succinctly explains:
On Twitter, legislative Democrats accused the GOP of playing political games and trying to smear the governor, particularly regarding the ACP, which conservatives have painted as a slush fund/bribe the governor accepted in exchange for the Department of Environmental Quality signing off on the project. It didn’t help that Cooper then named as legislative affairs director
a man who lobbied for Dominion Energy, which is part of the ACP project.
Senator Dan Blue says that Republicans called this week’s special session to “win some political points and launch a smear campaign.”
The North Carolina Democratic Party’s communications director makes a similar argument:
We’ll update this story as it develops. In the meantime, you can bet that this law, should it pass (which it will), will end up before a judge sooner than later.