Raleigh, N.C. — In a blistering attack on the Republican-controlled legislature, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper accused lawmakers Wednesday of violating an order of the North Carolina Supreme Court and manufacturing a dispute over a fund tied to a natural gas pipeline.
The governor’s statements came during a news conference in which he said he would allow legislation passed this week phasing in caps to elementary school class sizes to become law next month.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Cooper’s decision not to sign or veto the bill confirms his belief that the governor has a “clear conflict of interest” over the legislation and shouldn’t take action on it.
House Bill 90, which passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, fixes problems with the class size caps that school officials have complained about for months. But lawmakers tacked on provisions dealing with the state elections board and a $57.8 million fund designed to pay for environmental mitigation and economic development along the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“This charade has to stop,” a visibly agitated Cooper said. “Using our kids and now our schools as tools for their power grab and their partisan attacks is pretty low, even for them.”
The state Supreme Court last month ruled in Cooper’s favor in a dispute with lawmakers over the makeup of the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement and sent the matter back to a panel of three Superior Court judges to iron out the details. The ruling marked the second time in the past year that courts have found problems with legislative attempts to overhaul the elections board.
House Bill 90 calls for creating a nine-member elections board, with four Democratic and four Republican members selecting an unaffiliated ninth member.
“The legislature has chosen to ignore the Supreme Court’s direction, violate a court order and pass yet another unconstitutional scheme regarding the state board of elections,” Cooper said. “These legislators are going for the hat trick – unconstitutional a third time.”
Berger said the bill merely tries to address the court’s concerns with a law the General Assembly passed last year. He also criticized Cooper for telling elections board staffers not to take any actions without approval from the executive branch.
“The people of this state do not agree that ethics and elections enforcement should be controlled totally by one of the political parties, and that is exactly what the governor is attempting to do,” he said.
Cooper also blasted lawmakers for taking the money from the pipeline mitigation fund and divvying it up among the school districts in the eight counties on the Interstate 95 corridor through which the pipeline will pass.
“They raided the money that was supposed to improve the economy and bring jobs and lessen the environmental impact for the very communities that were affected,” he said, adding that the legislation “could imperil” the deal.
Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, co-owners of the 600-mile pipeline, agreed to put money into the fund in hopes that it might bring new natural gas customers in eastern North Carolina, Cooper said. There’s no way to tell if they will support having the money used by area schools, he said.
“Because these guys want to get in and grab political power and use this some way in partisan attacks, they’re willing to put all of that at risk. Even the legislators who live in those counties, a lot of them voted for this [bill] to take money out of their counties for economic development – unbelievable, unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know what the ACP is going to do. I have no idea, no idea. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said in an email that the state would determine how to administer the money in the fund, noting that the pipeline owners worked with North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia on mitigation funds during the approval process in each of the states.
Berger scoffed at Cooper’s explanation of the fund, which he called a “slush fund,” saying the governor has repeatedly changed the focus of it.
“It’s clear that he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and he’s doing everything he can to twist and turn and come up with an explanation that he hopes will stick,” Berger said.
The conservative Civitas Institute filed an ethics complaint against Cooper on Tuesday, suggesting that the governor solicited the money in exchange for approval of a key environmental permit and alleging his unfettered control of the fund was ripe for abuse.
Cooper said he would issue an executive order detailing who would determine how to disburse the money in the fund and, in acknowledging that his family owns land in Nash County near the pipeline route, rules prohibiting conflicts of interest would be in place.
Both Berger and reporters pointed out, however, none of that structure was spelled out in the three-page memorandum of understanding Cooper’s lawyer and representatives of the pipeline signed to set up the fund.
“I have some concern that he is more interested in having control over this $57 million than he is in having that money going to some of the poorest school districts in the state,” Berger said. “I have some concern that he may take action, as we move forward, to scuttle the payment of those funds so that it doesn’t get to those schools and doesn’t get to those children.”
Cooper didn’t say whether he planned any legal action over the pipeline provision – or the elections board section of the legislation. He was very clear, however, about why he didn’t want to turn control of the fund over to lawmakers in the first place, suggesting they would cut back-room deals on how to spend the money.
“This pipeline issue was too important. We needed to make sure the money went where it needed to go,” he said.
Cooper praises, criticizes class size fix
The governor was thankful most of the bill helped education.
“Teachers and parents can focus solely on educating their kids instead of begging the legislature to deal with this class size problem that the legislature itself created two years ago,” he said.
Lawmakers mandated in 2016 smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade as a way to boost student achievement. But school district officials said adding extra classes in early grades was forcing them to make cuts elsewhere, either in later grades or to non-core areas such as music, art and physical education, for both budgetary and space reasons.
House Bill 90 keeps class sizes at current levels for the 2018-19 school year and then phases in the reductions over the next three years. It also includes about $60 million a year for “enhancement” teachers in non-core subjects.
But the governor said lawmakers didn’t go far enough because they didn’t address the need for districts to build or expand schools to accommodate the extra classes or the shortage of teachers in some rural areas.
“A smaller class size doesn’t do much good with no teacher in it and without a classroom to put [students] in,” he said.
Lawmakers waited too long to address the problem, he said. The House pushed for a fix last year, but Senate leaders initially said districts had enough money to address the problem and later said they needed more data before they could take any action.
“The class size chaos that this legislature started caused agony and anger and angst across this state for no reason,” Cooper said.
The governor also praised a provision of the bill that adds to the annual appropriation for pre-kindergarten programs so the waiting list for North Carolina Pre-K can be eliminated by 2021.
“The rest of the bill’s bad provisions are political attacks and power grabs, period,” he said. “They are hurting our state with this kind of partisan play, particularly when you’re talking about schools and kids and jobs.”