Democrats, backed by the state's largest teacher's association, hung with the governor against the Republican-backed bill on educator pay, continuing a push for larger raises and more education funding in general, which they'd pay for by foregoing GOP plans to cut business taxes.
The vote was a microcosm of the larger budget battle the two sides have been fighting for eight months. That dynamic will likely carry into late April, when the legislature returns. It's going to color this year's legislative and gubernatorial elections as well, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger indicated Tuesday that expects the status quo to reign until after the elections.
That status quo gave teachers their salary step increases this year, but not the additional percentage raises they've gotten in recent years. Non-certified employees – the bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others in North Carolina's public schools – won't get raises at all as it stands now, and neither will community college and university workers.
Senate Bill 354 would have given K-12 teachers a 3.9 percent raise, on average, over two years, including the step increase that's already in hand. That would have increased to an average of 4.4 percent if Democrats also agreed to overturn the governor's full budget veto, an offer Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue compared Tuesday to extortion.
With the vote on the overall budget obvious, Senate Republicans declined to take up an override attempt on that veto Tuesday, keeping their preferred budget proposal alive but unenacted. They need but a single Democrat to join the GOP majority to hit the three-fifths threshold it takes to overturn a veto.
"It's my hope that, at some point, we will find a single Democrat that will stiffen their spine and stand up," Berger, R-Rockingham, said Tuesday afternoon.
Non-certified employees would have gotten 1 percent each year under Senate Bill 354, though that would have doubled to 2 percent, plus a one-time, 0.5 percent bonus, if the full budget also passed over Cooper's veto. University and community college workers would have gotten much the same deal.
Blue, D-Wake, said Democrats will hold out for "much more aggressive" increases, and he held a joint press conference Tuesday morning with leaders from the North Carolina Association of Educators. Cooper initially proposed an 8.5 percent teacher raise over the two-year budget.
Republicans styled themselves as incredulous that teachers – and Democrats – would hold out instead of taking the 3.9 percent on the table.
"I don't know any teacher in this state that would say give me nothing over 3.9 or 4.4 percent," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow.
"You've got it in the bag," said Sen. Rick Horner, R-Johnston. "Take it and come back, see if you can get more."
Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said the vote shows educators that, "we respect you, and we respect you to the tune that you deserve."
Teachers lobbied hard Tuesday for legislative action that would provide larger raises for non-certified school workers.
"We're at schools every day doing our work. It's time for them to do theirs," Guilford County teacher Todd Warren said. "Enough is enough. It's time to do right by public schools."
Berger said in a statement after the vote that Senate Democrats "have rejected every teacher pay offer we've proposed, and Governor Cooper has vetoed every teacher pay raise we've passed."
"Their strategy is to block teacher pay raises, then mislead everybody into blaming the Republicans," he said. "It's a deeply cynical ploy that harms teachers and our state."
The override attempt went down 28-21, a party-line vote. Democrats also held together Tuesday on a regulatory reform bill, upholding another veto Cooper handed down last year by an identical 28-21 vote.
Without a full budget in place, state government is running on 2018 funding levels, though lawmakers used mini-budget bills to boost rank-and-file state employee salaries and fund some other priorities. Berger told reporters after session wrapped Tuesday that teacher pay continues to be a priority, but he doesn't see another mini budget emerging on it.
"We have swung at that so many times that I don't know that it makes any sense other than having the veto overridden," Berger said. "And then we can start having a conversation about whether or not 3.9 is enough."
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