Lawmakers leave town after passing bill limiting Cooper's, education board's power
Posted December 16, 2016
Updated December 17, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — The General Assembly passed a bill Friday that strips incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper of some powers before he takes office. The bill also takes away power from the State Board of Education and transfers it to the newly elected Republican state superintendent.
The move was one of the final actions of a three-day special session criticized by Democrats and scores of protesters. House Bill 17 is now headed to Gov. Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost to Cooper.
"Once more, the courts will have to clean up the mess the legislature made, but it won't stop us from moving North Carolina forward," Cooper said in a statement.
On Thursday, he threatened to sue the General Assembly if he deems any of the legislation they passed in the session to be unconstitutional.
The bill, which was introduced Wednesday night, does the following to Cooper:
- Reduces the number of exempt positions under Cooper's supervision from 1,500 to 425. The original bill dropped it to 300, but the number was increased in the Senate version. Exempt positions are those that a governor can hire or fire at will, either because they are managers or because their job is somewhat political in nature. Although former Gov. Bev Perdue had roughly 500 such positions under her control, GOP lawmakers gave McCrory 1,500 to work with.
- Removes gubernatorial appointments to the boards of trustees that run each campus in the University of North Carolina system. Those appointments would be would be transferred to the General Assembly.
- Requires Senate confirmation for gubernatorial cabinet appointments. Although the state constitution allows this, the legislature hasn't exercised this power in recent memory.
The bill also would give state Superintendent-elect Mark Johnson more flexibility in managing the state's education budget, more authority to dismiss senior level employees and the ability to choose the leader of the new Achievement School District, which will oversee some of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Those powers are currently under the State Board of Education's control.
Johnson released a statement Friday, saying the bill "will help usher in an era of greater transparency at (the Department of Public Instruction) by eliminating the more confusing aspects of the relationship between the N.C. superintendent and the N.C. Board of Education."
"This will better serve constituents visiting Raleigh as our working relationship will be more similar to how local superintendents and their respective boards of education work together across North Carolina," his statement continued. "I thank the N.C. House and N.C. Senate for their hard work on these straight-forward, common-sense reforms."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey have criticized the bill, saying it raises constitutional concerns and eliminates checks and balances.
"This has the potential to change the department from a nonpartisan agency to a partisan agency, and I find that troubling," Atkinson, a Democrat who lost her re-election bid to Johnson, said Thursday. "I think (board members) are concerned about how the passage of this bill will affect the working relationship (with Johnson)."
The State Board of Education plans to hold a meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the legislation.
Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said he spoke with Johnson about the changes presented in the bill, including a change that gives the new superintendent more authority over state education staff, and Johnson thought it was a good idea.
"From my business days and days in the military, when I moved into a job, I needed my people," Horn said.
Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, said he also spoke with Johnson.
"Most of what we're doing is clarifying the constitutional role of the superintendent," Barefoot said. "I can yell you from personal experience that the superintendent needs more administrative control over his department."
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, said the level of political influence Republicans are trying to assume over DPI "quite frankly scares me and should scare anyone who cares about public education."
Democrats have their own track record of partisan power grabs, said Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party.
"You can like it, you can not like it, but I would say this is something that's been done through history," Woodhouse said. "Part of it is this is the result of divided government. This is the result of voters picking a strong Republican legislature and a Democrat governor by a fingernail."