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Impasse Continues Over State Budget, Teacher Pay After Brief Session

North Carolina General Assembly
GOP leaders put a veto override vote on Tuesday's calendar.

RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans in the General Assembly fell short on Tuesday trying to overturn Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes on teacher pay and the budget, ensuring their spending impasse will extend into spring and perhaps longer.

On a party-line vote, the Senate failed to override Cooper's veto of a measure that would have enacted pay raises for teachers, teacher assistants, school custodians and other staff at least at levels contained in the larger two-year budget Cooper also vetoed last June.

Senate Republicans would have needed one or maybe two Democrats to vote with them for the override. With Senate Democrats showing during the teacher pay vote they were united supporting Cooper, Republicans decided to call off a scheduled veto override vote on the broader budget during the brief one-day session.

Cooper and other Democrats have said the average educator pay increases offered by the GOP were feeble compared to what the governor sought.

“Today was a win for Senate Democrats, but more importantly it was a win for fighting for meaningful investment in public education, including raising teacher pay," said Senate Minority Whip Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County after the session, which was completed in about three hours. Now the legislature won't return to work until late April.

The level of teacher pay, the absence of Medicaid expansion and presence of corporate tax cuts in the budget measure led Cooper to veto the budget bill almost seven months ago, prompting a stalemate in which attempts at compromise sputtered. State government continues to operate despite the lack of of a budget deal, thanks in part to several separate “mini-budgets” that were approved and included pay raises for state employees. Cooper signed most of them into law.

But K-12 educators and staff still don't have increases for this school year given Tuesday's override failure, save for experience-based raises already approved.

“We are not asking for anything that we do not deserve or that we can't afford,” Erica Johnson, a teacher assistant and local North Carolina Association of Educators leader in Alamance County, said at a news conference Tuesday before the session began. “This is about choosing to treat educators with respect and dignity, or choosing to give corporate tax breaks.”

Had the teacher pay bill veto ultimately been overridden, K-12 instructors would have received an average 3.9% raise through mid-2021. Cooper wanted twice that amount.

Senate leader Phil Berger said after the session it's possible the budget override could still happen later this year: “It's my hope that at some point we will find a single Democrat that will stiffen their spine and stand up.” But the override failures could serve as political ammunition during the fall elections in which all 170 seats are on the ballot, with the party winning majorities gaining the power to perform redistricting in 2021.

Four Senate Democrats actually voted for the final budget in June, before Cooper's veto. But Democrats have rallied around Cooper, particularly since House Republicans rammed through a budget override vote in a half-empty chamber in September.

The governor, Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore and their surrogates have argued over why no budget agreement has been reached, accusing each other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Republicans have blamed Cooper for failing to let go of his demand to expand Medicaid as part of any budget agreement.

“Senate Democrats have now given their votes to Gov. Cooper, who likely has convinced them that somehow they would still get what was in the budget and he would get his Medicaid expansion,” said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. “Instead, they and North Carolina get neither.”

Cooper has said there was no Medicaid “ultimatum” and pointed to his willingness to negotiate teacher pay separately from the budget. Republicans should “end their partisan obstruction,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Tuesday.

Tuesday's actions mean Republicans have yet to override any of Cooper's 14 vetoes since early 2019, after Democratic seat gains following the 2018 elections ended the GOP's veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Senate Republicans were unable to override another Cooper veto on Tuesday, this one on the legislature's annual regulatory overhaul measure.

Lawmakers did manage to approve unanimously one bill Tuesday that gives an additional $2.4 million this fiscal year and next to cover a shortfall for scholarships for the children of wartime veterans. The bill now goes to Cooper, who is expected to sign it.