• The $1.9 billion Leandro school funding plan will be the focus of budget negotiations between Gov. Cooper and lawmakers
  • Cooper wants a state budget that funds every dollar of the court-ordered plan, and budget conferees from the House and Senate do not
  • If the legislature does not pass a budget that includes the entire Leandro plan by October 18, Judge David Lee promised to use the court’s “remedial powers to secure such funding”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to sign or veto the state budget may come down to one issue: the Leandro school funding plan.

As state budget negotiations begin in earnest, Cooper will need to decide if the inclusion of the nearly $1.9 billion school funding plan is a deal-breaker. Cooper wants a state budget that funds every dollar of the court-ordered plan. Budget conferees from the House and Senate do not.

Leandro vs. State of North Carolina is a 1994 lawsuit that centers on the state’s constitutional duty to provide an opportunity for a “sound basic education” to all public school students. Earlier this year, Judge David Lee and the Leandro plaintiffs and defendants agreed to an 8-year, multi-billion-dollar comprehensive remedial plan based on a report by California-based consultant WestEd.

Judge Lee and the parties contend that Leandro compliance requires that the biennial budget include all remedial plan provisions through 2023. He has fulminated against the General Assembly, which is not a party to the Leandro litigation, for not providing more money for K-12 education and made veiled threats of “consequences” that he may impose on the General Assembly if the legislature does not pass a satisfactory budget by October 18. In his most recent court order, Judge Lee writes that he “will hear and consider any proposals for how the Court may use its remedial powers to secure such funding.” Presumably, this includes holding the General Assembly in contempt of court, imposing fines on the legislature, or even trying to secure funding through unscrupulous and largely extraconstitutional means.

The cost of the measures outline in the remedial plan would require $725.6 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021-22 and $1.15 billion in FY 2022-23. Lawmakers correctly assert that the state constitution clearly empowers the elected members of the General Assembly, and not the courts, to direct taxpayer dollars. As a result, the House and Senate budget proposals include only selected provisions from the remedial plan and falls millions of dollars short of fully funding a plan that did not include any legislative input.

Last week, Cooper reaffirmed that he supports full implementation of the comprehensive remedial plan. Cooper told the members of his Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, “As we enter these new trilateral budget negotiations, I will work as hard as I can for strong investments in this plan so we can make it a reality.” The commission later approved a resolution that urged “all state bodies, entities, and agencies to take all necessary actions to implement and fund the State’s Plan, and in accordance with the timelines set forth therein.” Yet Cooper stopped short of saying that he would only sign a budget that includes the entire remedial plan.

At the beginning of Cooper’s first term, “trilateral budget negotiations” were not necessary. Cooper refused to sign the state budget in the first four years of his tenure, but the Republican-led General Assembly had sufficient votes to override a veto during this period. Cooper’s bargaining power was strengthened when Republicans lost their veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly in 2018.

The Cooper administration sought to leverage its newfound power to strong-arm Republicans into expanding Medicaid and raising public school employee pay. Cooper’s gambit has not worked out well. Lawmakers refused to expand Medicaid, and Cooper’s veto blocked the passage of a respectable teacher pay increase in 2019. Lawmakers and Cooper agreed to a cautious plan in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, budget writers in the North Carolina House and Senate have opted to discuss the state budget with Cooper to head off another budget showdown. Curiously, Cooper did not say publicly that he would reject any budget that did not include the full remedial plan package. In an interview with the News & Observer, Cooper commented, “I think all three of us [Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger] have maintained that all issues are on the table, and I think that’s important as we go into these conversations.”

If Cooper is honest that “all issues are on the table,” then the comprehensive remedial plan is not a deal-breaker. And if Cooper signs a budget that does not include the complete remedial plan, would Judge Lee try to punish him for it? After all, Cooper would be complicit in violating the judge’s order. A more critical concern for the Cooper administration is that the decision to sign a Leandro-limited budget would anger political allies who desperately want the courts to slam their opponents in the General Assembly.