Cooper unhappy constitution amendments on ballot

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday the Republican-controlled legislature should have put a statewide school bond package on ballots this fall, rather than several constitutional amendments that he considers “bad government.”

Speaking at a Wake County elementary school, Cooper said GOP legislative leaders failed during this year’s work session by refusing to submit a $1.9 billion school construction measure to voters in a November referendum.

In their final days before the June 29 adjournment, Republican legislators put six proposed alterations to the state constitution up for statewide votes this fall. The questions in part seek to require photo identification to vote, alter how judicial vacancies are filled and make clear the legislature controls appointments over the state elections board and other state boards and commissions.

“They are forcing people to vote for constitutional amendments that are bad for our state and that are unnecessary. But they refuse to let people vote on a school bond and we’ve heard throughout the state the needs for school construction,” Cooper said at Stough Elementary School in Raleigh, which opened in 1968 and will be rebuilt in a year.

Construction needs for local districts are great, Cooper said, particularly in rural areas with low property tax bases and that have difficulty passing local debt packages. This contrasts with prosperous Wake County, which has approved two bond measures since 2006.

A 2016 study put statewide school building and infrastructure needs at more than $8 billion over five years. The last statewide school construction bond package was approved in 1996.

House and Senate members filed identical bipartisan school bond proposals last year, and the House version cleared one committee. Cooper also put a similar-sized bond proposal in his budget recommendations for this year, and the North Carolina Association of Educators listed one among its demands as close to 20,000 teachers and allies rallied at the Legislative Building in May.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said at the session’s close he believed there will be significant support for school bonds during next year’s session, and he would have liked a referendum this year.

But Moore said some colleagues were concerned about the state accruing the debt. Lawmakers had already agreed this year to a Cooper administration proposal to authorize the issuance up to $3 billion in new debt over 10 years to keep up the current high pace of road-building construction. No referendum was required, and the debt would be repaid with highway-dedicated revenues. Cooper said Tuesday the state can issue both amounts of debt and remain fiscally disciplined.

Republican lawmakers also pointed out that for the two years ending in June 2019 they’ve made available more than $370 million in lottery proceeds to distribute to local districts for construction needs.

“We are putting more money into school construction now than at any time before,” Moore said late last month.

The school bond question is likely to be among issues that Cooper and other Democrats will highlight this fall in General Assembly elections. They want to eliminate the GOP’s House and Senate veto-proof majorities.

As for the constitutional amendments, don’t expect Cooper to work to pass any of them.

Cooper said Tuesday four of the six — voter ID, judicial vacancies, boards and commissions and lowering the cap on income tax rates — are wrong-headed ideas. At least two of those amendments would scale back a governor’s powers.

Cooper had lukewarm words for the remaining amendments, which would expand crime victims’ rights already contained in the constitution and create the right to hunt and fish. Democratic legislators questioned the need for the alterations.

“I just think that those are unnecessary,” he said. “I support both of those … but I think they’re unnecessary.”