North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that a bill on his desk fixing an upcoming public school class-size dilemma and expanding fully pre-kindergarten for at-risk children will become law next month.
But the Democrat decided to neither veto nor sign the bill because of other items attached to it by the Republican-controlled legislature. Those provisions targeted Cooper by altering the state elections board composition — currently the focus of litigation — and a natural gas pipeline agreement that has the governor dismissing GOP allegations of conflicts of interest.
The unrelated provisions led to hand-wringing among Democratic lawmakers, but nearly all of them begrudgingly voted yes for the final measure in recent days. In the end, Cooper decided to blast GOP lawmakers for the additions as another political power play while arguing parents and educators forced his rivals to pass the class-size and pre-K changes.
"That is what is good in this bill and that is why I'm going to allow it to become law. Our kids and our schools are too important," Cooper said at an Executive Mansion news conference.
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According to rules in the state constitution, the bill will take effect in mid-March based on Cooper's decision.
The measure will delay lower student-teacher ratios set to take next fall in kindergarten through third grade by phasing in the restrictions by the fall of 2021. Districts will have more time to avoid increasing class sizes in higher grades and eliminate art, music and physical education instructors to pay for hiring more K-3 classroom teachers. There is also more money for the so-called program-enhancement instructors. The bill also aims to pay for preschool for all at-risk 4-year-olds by 2020.
But Republicans piled into the bill changes to the state election and ethics board weeks after the state Supreme Court ruled favorably on Cooper's challenge to its composition. The bill's enactment until next month, however, means a lower court could have a say on whether the composition change complies with the Supreme Court's ruling. The bill also reworks an agreement Cooper's office reached with utilities seeking to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through eastern North Carolina.
"The rest of the bill's bad provisions are political attacks and power grabs, period," Cooper said.
The agreement said the pipeline developers would pay $57.8 million into a special account for environmental mitigation and economic development along the pipeline to ensure it benefits eastern North Carolina. Republicans said Cooper had no authority to direct the fund's use and required in the bill the money to go to school districts near the pipeline's proposed route.
Cooper said legislators changing the agreement could jeopardize the funds. Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Resources, one of the utilities building the pipeline, said in an email "the state determines how to administer those mitigation funds."
Republicans argued the pipeline agreement created a "slush fund" for Cooper that lacked transparency and controls to prevent money from being distributed to Cooper's political allies. Cooper said there would have been rules in the final details to prevent conflicts of interest. Lawmakers, he said, "manufactured a power struggle."
Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore had called on Cooper earlier Wednesday to recuse himself from the legislation and let it become law. After the announcement, Berger said Cooper's decision confirmed the governor had a clear conflict with the legislation. Berger told reporters Cooper hadn't been very forthcoming about agreement details until now.
"It's clear that he got his hand caught in the cookie jar, and he is doing everything he can to twist and turn and come up with an explanation that hopes will stick," Berger said.
Earlier Wednesday, a right-leaning political organization filed a state ethics complaint against him. The Civitas Institute wants the ethics board to formally evaluate whether the memorandum of understanding with the pipeline owners that included the money was signed in exchange for state regulators issuing a key water permit. Cooper said that "absolutely" did not occur.