Senate Democrats maintain Cooper veto of teacher pay bill

“It’s clear that unless Cooper gives them the green light, they will not agree to an override.” Sen. Phil Berger (R-Eden)

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) speaks during a press conference at the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, January 14, 2020. (Robert Clark/The North State Journal)

RALEIGH — The N.C. Senate was in session Tuesday and the agenda included consideration of three outstanding vetoes, including the state budget and a bill that would give teachers a pay increase.

“This is on the table now, that you can give the teachers [raises], or not. It’s just that simple,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow).

But all 21 Senate Democrats voted no to the teacher pay raise, maintaining Cooper’s veto of the bill, Senate Bill 354. Democrats remained united in upholding Cooper’s veto of SB 553, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2019. The override of the governor’s budget veto was removed from the calendar.

SB 354 would have raised teacher pay 3.9% in year one and an additional 4.4% in year two, with a contingency that Senate Democrats joined in overriding of the governor’s budget veto.

On July 9, Cooper announced a new offer of an 8.5% teacher pay raise over the next two years and passing Medicaid expansion. His original offer was 9% over the biennium.

The legislature countered on Nov. 1 with SB 354, a minibudget addressing teacher pay raises that came within half of a percent of Cooper’s compromise offer. The Senate Democrats refused, voting down the bill along party lines. The governor vetoed the offer one week later, calling the raises “paltry.”

At a press conference prior to the Senate session on Tuesday, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said Senate Democrats had informed him that they all plan to sustain Cooper’s veto of the budget.

“We’ve talked to the Democrats,” said Berger. “It’s clear that unless Cooper gives them the green light, they will not agree to an override.”

Cooper’s veto of the budget hinged on Medicaid expansion, an item which Berger said does not have the votes to pass.

Berger said that nothing had changed in connection with the override issue and that Democrats had chosen “political loyalty to Cooper and his Medicaid ultimatum” as more important than the funding in the vetoed budget.

“This is what Democrats stand for in 2020,” said Berger. “They should be judged on their failure to act.”

Berger also called Cooper’s Medicaid ultimatum and the Senate Democrats’ inaction a case of “cynical political posturing,” and it was their choice to block state funding in “pursuit of political gain.”

“They are holding out in 2020; they hope to be in charge in 2021,” said Berger, adding that he was prepared to negotiate a full second year budget as long as the governor dropped his Medicaid ultimatum.

When asked if not passing Medicaid was also a form of an ultimatum, Berger responded that the votes to pass such a measure simply were not there and said, “It is a factual statement it will not pass.”

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. We have given them an opportunity to support raises for teachers multiple times,” said Berger. “I don’t know that it’s really incumbent on us to take another swipe at it.”

Berger pointed out that a bipartisan supermajority voted last June to pass the budget which included a 3.9% teacher pay raise – the same amount now being rejected by the Democrats.

Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) held a press conference after Berger, flanked by members of the Democrat caucus and officials from the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).

Blue said that nothing had been gained in the long session but “bruised egos” and that there was “no meaningful movement” on teacher pay raises.

Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) vows Senate Democrats will maintain Gov. Cooper’s budget veto at a Jan. 14 Press conference. (Robert Clark/The North State Journal)

Higher teacher pay was “worth holding out for,” Blue said. He went on to say that the General Assembly Republican leadership had not adapted to the “new reality” that they did not have a veto-proof majority.

“No one’s livelihood should be used as political leverage,” said Blue, as he turned the podium over to NCAE President Mark Jewell.

Jewell claimed that teachers had not received a “fair raise” for the last 10 years and called for a vote today.

North Carolina has raised the average teacher pay roughly 20% since 2014, which is the third-highest set of pay increases in the country. The current vetoed budget would have been the sixth and seventh consecutive teacher pay raises.

Other NCAE members present said they had been denied raises “like other state employees.” They also said that Cooper had negotiated in “good faith,” yet he vetoed SB 354, which came very close to his own offer.

Both Jewell and NCAE Vice President Kristy Moore said that the legislature only wanted to pass the budget so they could give “tax cuts to corporations.”

When Blue was asked why he had not brought up Medicaid expansion, he said that his own compromise offer did not include Medicaid.

“We will uphold the governor’s veto,” said Blue, when asked about SB 354 being on the Senate’s agenda for the day. Blue compared the bill to “extortion.”

“Twenty-one Democrats have promised me themselves and have promised each other and have promised you,” said Blue. “They have all said they will vote to uphold the governor’s veto.”

The state will continue to run on the funding levels from the previously passed budget unless Cooper’s veto is overridden. After both chambers recessed on Tuesday, the General Assembly calendar was updated to show that the House and Senate would reconvene on April 28, 2020.

About A.P. Dillon 279 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_