The governor’s big day

Overriding Cooper's veto of the school reopening bill could restore balance to state government

Monday is the most important day of Gov. Roy Cooper’s political career 

Sometime this evening, the General Assembly will vote to override his last-minute veto of Senate Bill 37, a measure passed by a supermajority that would shift power over public school operations from his hands and restore decision-making to local school boards. If Cooper loses this vote — and recent opinion polling, along with a preponderance of the scientific evidence, suggest he should — he’ll cement his record as a largely ineffectual, partisan governor who won elections but governed by decree rather than consent.

A loss later today also might embolden more Democratic lawmakers to work with legislative Republicans to accomplish policy goals rather than satisfying the demands of a petulant activist base.

None of this is necessary, if the governor weren’t so hard-headed about compromising his ability to rule by fiat. With a few tweaks to his own executive orders, kids could return to school, letting everyone move on. And, most importantly, kids could return to school. (Redundancy intended.)

The bill would reverse an Executive Order Cooper issued nearly a year ago closing K-12 public schools to full-time, in-person instruction. Subsequent orders set up a three-tiered system of reopening, implemented district by district (with no flexibility for large districts to have some schools more accessible than others). Plan A allowed full-time classroom instruction with minimal social distancing but enhanced sanitation requirements. Plan B required students to rotate between virtual and in-person classes, and expand social distancing if in class. Plan C was virtual only. 

Lawmakers based S.B. 37’s reopening rules on guidelines published by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services in early February. The bill incorporated Cooper’s own safety regulations. The bill also allowed teachers and staff who thought it was too risky to return to school buildings to opt into virtual learning, and for personnel who were taking care of loved ones at home to opt out. Students could choose virtual instruction as well.

The bill eliminated Plan C. Districts could move entire schools or specific classes within schools to virtual-only if COVID outbreaks occurred. Local districts, rather than the governor, would make those choices.

Districts would have to reopen within 15 days of the bill becoming law.

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S.B. 37 passed the House, 77-42 (with eight Democrats joining all Republicans), and the Senate, 31-16 (with three Democrats breaking ranks). Cooper vetoed it late Friday afternoon, a few hours before it would have become law without his signature.

If all lawmakers were present and voting, Republicans would need 72 House members and 30 senators to override. The GOP will need a handful of Democrats in each chamber: four in the House, two in the Senate.

Without question, lots of elbow tendons are torqued right now as the governor’s team, his most loyal lawmakers, and allies of the N.C. Association of Educators are begging, cajoling, and probably extorting the members who voted for the bill to switch. They’re whipping (figuratively … I hope) other Dems to hold fast.

For what?

The NCAE’s goal is simple. Maintain a hammerlock on the state Democratic Party. 

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Cooper’s is, too. Finally prevailing on a consequential issue. As I noted two weeks ago, the governor has failed to get any of his stated goals through the legislature: Medicaid expansion; reforming the corporate tax code (aka increasing rates and cluttering it with special-interest carve-outs); and raising K-12 teacher pay to the mythical national average (the legislature has increased pay over Cooper’s term, but over his veto because the raises weren’t the ones he preferred).

Also, a slush fund he wanted to attach to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was sniffed out by journalists and lawmakers and the project died in court.

Tonight’s vote may be the governor’s last chance to impose his will on Democratic lawmakers. If he loses this override vote, he loses leverage over the caucus.

Or, on the bright side, see this as an opportunity for public-spirited Democrats to help their constituents. Parents who’ve had to juggle jobs, child care, and involuntary homeschooling. Students who’ve suffered from social isolation and substandard education from a jumbled online curriculum. (A majority of high school students failed end-of-course exams, the state reported last week.) Teachers who want to return to safe classrooms and do what they love.

Do what’s right. Partisan special interests be damned.

Cooper’s leverage is waning. He’s a lame duck. He won’t be able to hand out favors much longer — or mete out punishment. I’d imagine a Democratic lawmaker who votes to reopen schools would welcome a Cooper-inspired primary challenge in 2022. Also, he’s neither a skilled party builder like Jim Hunt, nor an avuncular speaker like Pat McCrory. Cooper’s unlikely to be in the public eye much during retirement.

Meantime, the GOP has advantages it didn’t before the election. Republicans expanded control of the legislature, so they’re in charge of redistricting. (Nice safe seat you have there, on-the-fence Democratic legislator. Hate to see anything happen to it.) I’ve argued and continue to believe that partisanship shouldn’t affect redistricting. But I’m not in the legislature, and I wasn’t born yesterday.

Conservative talk show host Pete Kaliner noted last week in this Twitter thread that Cooper could tweak his executive orders and accommodate school reopenings.

Indeed, he’s done just that when churches, gyms, bowling alleys, and bars went to court to challenge them. When the churches and business owners were on the verge of winning and setting a precedent that could undermine his executive powers, he backed down.

Parents could sue, but the pandemic would be over before they got their day in court. Their kids still would have lost a full year of learning and social interaction.

Tonight’s veto override vote may be the last chance parents who want their kids back in a classroom to get them there before August. And it may be the best chance to rebalance constitutional policymaking authority where it belongs in North Carolina — primarily with the General Assembly.

Personal note

Whatever knocked me stupid Friday went away with a couple days’ rest. I’ve recovered fully. Thanks for the well wishes.

Over the weekend, a rock and roll legend turned 84. (Live TV and no lip synching! Avert your eyes, PC police!)