@NCCapitol

Teachers group to file suit over overnight override

Posted January 5, 2012 1:04 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2012 6:53 p.m. EST

— The North Carolina Association of Educators said Thursday that it plans to file a lawsuit against the state after Republican lawmakers engineered a late-night vote targeting the teachers organization.

Gov. Beverly Perdue called the General Assembly into special session Wednesday to give lawmakers the chance to override her recent veto of legislation that essentially repeals a 2-year-old law that provides death row inmates with an avenue to challenge their sentences.

House Republicans couldn't muster enough support for that override, but they quickly scheduled a session at 12:45 a.m. Thursday to override a veto Perdue handed down last summer on Senate Bill 727. The legislation bars the NCAE from collecting dues from members through payroll deduction.

The Senate voted in July to override that veto, but the House never took up the override until Thursday morning.

"Republican lawmakers came into the legislature at about 1 o'clock in the morning while our children were sleeping and took revenge on teachers who were standing up for our children," an angry Perdue said Thursday afternoon. "That's just shameful for North Carolina, shameful."

Jack Nichols, an attorney for the NCAE, said the way the House vote was handled violated the state constitution. The legislation itself is also unconstitutional, he said, because it is written specifically to target the teachers group.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina and charities like the United Way also collect dues and donations through payroll deduction.

"The message from the legislature is clear: If you stand against cuts to public education, we will teach you a lesson," NCAE President Sheri Strickland told supporters at a news conference.

Strickland played a clip of House Speaker Thom Tillis unknowingly speaking into an open microphone last spring during a Republican caucus, when he outlined plans to target the group, which has traditionally backed Democratic candidates and was lobbying hard against cuts to spending on public education.

"We just want to give them a little taste of what's about to come," Tillis told his fellow House Republicans at the time.

"The government just doesn't have the right, under the constitution, to go teach a citizen a lesson, whatever that means," state Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said Thursday.

Although lawmakers didn't follow the proper procedure for calling the session and didn't give the public any advance notice, Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, defended the hastily called session early Thursday.

"Everybody knows that every veto override that is on the calendar is unfinished business," he said. "I've made it very clear from the beginning that unfinished business will be taken up when we have the opportunity to override the vetoes, and that still stands for every other veto."

Republicans promised more transparency in governing when they took control of the General Assembly last year, but GOP spokesman Rob Lockwood says that voters want efficiency more than anything from the legislature.

"The people really don't care about how it was done," Lockwood said. "The bottom line is, we did something we believe in, and the Democrats disagree. The bottom line is the issue and the result at the end of the day, and that's what the people care about."

House Democrats leveled withering criticism at their GOP counterparts, saying how the state government does things is important.

"You draw your own conclusions," Glazier said at an early morning news conference. "My conclusion is it was vindictive, it was punitive, it was deliberate, it was willful and, in my view, it's also malicious and harmful to the people of the state."

The late-night vote helped squelch any possibility of a protest or show of force by the NCAE and other education supporters, said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh.

McLennan said he thinks the political maneuvering was legal, but it still could hurt the Republicans in the legislative session that starts in May and in the fall elections.

"The Democrats are going to be very angry at the Republicans and probably cause a lot more gridlock," he said. "The educators and those who support education are going to be even more supportive of Democrats than they have in the past, and that could lead to a very interesting campaign season."

The overnight session quickly showed up in Democratic fundraising appeals on Thursday as lawmakers highlighted the override in a letter to donors and asked for money to help pay for their legal fight against the new Republican voting maps.

Voters in general, though, probably won't see the issue as a key factor in November, McLennan said.

"The reality is, in legislative races in particular, I don't think it's going to have much impact," he said.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman David Parker agreed, saying the override vote happened too fast to register with many people.

"It was like a rigged horse race that's already been run. Nobody cares about it after the horses have already finished the line, and that's what the Republican strategy is," Parker said.

Jasmine Hart, a 10th-grade English teacher at Sanderson High School, said not being able to pay NCAE dues directly via a payroll deduction is not the end of the world, but it is a nuisance.

"It's just one more thing we're going to have to do, one more piece of paperwork," Hart said.

The new law is also inconvenient for the NCAE, but Strickland said the group is "not going to back down now." She said she hopes the override energizes her membership.

"I think the end result may be not only to strengthen the membership we currently have but to have other educators who had not previously considered joining the association decide they want to stand up to a legislature that treats educators this way," she said.