Long-sought help for schools struggling to lower class sizes is now tied up with a controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline fund and a power struggle over control of elections boards.
A bill proposed Thursday would take $58 million that energy companies building a pipeline through Eastern North Carolina are expected to give state government as part of a deal Gov. Roy Cooper negotiated, and distribute it to school districts in eight counties the pipeline would run through. Cooper calls it a mitigation fund to offset environmental effects of the pipeline, but Republicans repeatedly called it a “slush fund.”
“We felt like these counties need money for education,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, a budget committee chairman from Jacksonville.
House Bill 90 also makes changes to the state elections board. The changes are the response to Republicans’ recent loss in the state Supreme Court in a ruling that said their earlier attempt to reconstitute the board was unconstitutional. In the latest iteration, the elections board would have nine members, including one member not affiliated with a political party.
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The potentially contentious proposals are part of a larger bill that would delay implementation of a class-size mandate – a change that parents and school officials statewide have been pressing for – and which would provide money for art, music, and physical education teachers.
Rep. Darren Jackson, the House minority leader and Wake County Democrat, said he liked the idea of adding a ninth member, but said the proposed change was premature because a panel of three judges has not yet determined how the Supreme Court ruling changes the law.
Jackson said Republicans tied the elections board change and the pipeline mitigation money to the class-size changes in an attempt to bait Democrats into voting against the bill and the Democratic governor into vetoing it.
In a statement, Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said: “It’s clear that the legislature finally bowed to public pressure on class size and expanding Pre-K, which is positive for our students, but it’s unfortunate that it has been lumped in with political shenanigans.”
A state Democratic Party news release went further: “Republicans are holding public schools across North Carolina hostage so they can – for a third time – try to rig our elections so they can stay in power.”
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, said the class-size and elections board changes and pipeline money were rolled together in a single bill for the sake of efficiency.
Last month, the Supreme Court struck down a law that was the legislature’s second attempt to merge the state elections board and ethics commission.
The law would have set up an eight-member board of four Democrats and four Republicans and changed how appointments are made. Before the proposed change, the governor’s party had a one-vote majority on the elections board. Cooper sued. The court majority said the law violated the state constitution’s separation of powers clause.
Under the revamped proposal presented Thursday, Republicans propose a nine-member state elections board of four Democrats, four Republicans and a member not affiliated with a political party. The bill would also allow the governor to remove members at will.
“The governor is gaining more control by having the authority to appoint at-will and to name the ninth vote,” said Rep. David Lewis, House Rules Committee chairman and a Harnett County Republican.