by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

“Coming together after acrimony isn’t always easy, but it is the right thing to do for North Carolina. I appreciate the work of the legislators.”

-Governor Roy Cooper, Press Conference, March 10, 2021

In last month’s blog, I posted about a survey of state legislative leaders that revealed several examples of bipartisanship across America’s state legislatures. In today’s post, I want to feature one such bipartisan effort: a bill to re-open schools in North Carolina that passed without a single dissenting vote in mid-March, despite an historically tense relationship between the Democratic governor and Republican legislature.

To say that the relationship between the governor and the legislature was contentious during the governor’s first term would be an understatement. Following the 2016 election, the closest in state history, Republican incumbent Pat McCrory refused to concede for more than a month, forcing a recount and several lawsuits. Once it was clear that Roy Cooper had won the election, the GOP controlled lame duck legislature passed and the outgoing Republican governor signed into law several bills to shift power from and reduce the staff of the incoming governor. 

During Governor Cooper’s first term, he vetoed more bills (53) than the four governors who served before him combined (35) and the General Assembly overrode his veto just over fifty percent of the time. These vetoes included three state budgets. Over the governor’s first term, the two parties traded increasingly bitter accusations of playing politics, being obstructionists and more interested in scoring political points than solving problems.

It was with this history that NC Senate Republicans filed Senate Bill 37: An Act to Provide In-Person Learning for Students in Grades Kindergarten through Grade Twelve on February 1, 2021. SB 37 passed both the Senate (29-15) and House (74-44) on primarily party line votes. On February 26, Governor Cooper vetoed SB 37. Three days later, the senate sustained the veto, falling one vote short of an override. All Republicans voted to override the veto. Of course, Democrats blamed the Republicans for a failure to compromise and Republicans accused Democrats of not following the science and playing politics with the education of the state’s children.

However, unlike previous clashes between the two parties, a common desire shared by the voters, to get students back in school drove both parties to the negotiating table instead of to their respective partisan corners. Within a week of the failed override vote, the governor and the legislative leaders held a press conference announcing a compromise. Governor Cooper thanked the senate leaders for “being honest brokers” and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger complemented the governor and his staff “for their hard work on the arrangement that we have reached.” The governor and leaders from both parties and both chambers spoke about the collaborative effort that produced the compromise that had the support of all parties.

So, how did we get from distrust, finger pointing and anonymity to a unanimous agreement? I think the success of these bipartisan efforts can be summed up in three factors that one Democratic senator noted are critical for a successful compromise: a willingness to come to the table, open communication between the principles and the existence of a satisfactory solution.  

Willingness. Regarding the willingness to come to the table, Cooper’s 2020 re-election, along with the re-election of Republican legislative majorities in both chambers seemed to bring about a realization from both sides that they needed to work together.  Further, it became evident that another four years of stalemate (Democrats still had the votes to sustain their governor’s veto) was not acceptable and would likely hurt both parties. 

Communications. This realization opened the door for the second condition – open communication. One legislative leader noted that he believed the governor and legislative leaders had spoken more in the week before the announcement of the compromise than in the entire four years of Cooper’s first term. Indeed, in the press conference, Cooper acknowledged to the senate leader how much he “appreciated the discussions we have had this week and this past night.” 

Solutions. Finally, the compromise was made possible by fact that compromise was possible–  on this issue there was a middle ground where each side could claim some victory. In his initial veto message, the governor clearly explained his two primary concerns with the legislation setting the stage for negotiations to take place. In discussing how the compromise came about, the words of the Senate President Pro Tem Berger explained those negotiations, “We’ve reached a compromise on school reopening that will return many students to full in-person instruction. For the past week we have engaged in detailed negotiations with the governor to reach a final product.”

Is this a recipe for further compromise or just a one off? I don’t know, but there does seem to be some indication of future cooperation in the Tarheel State. Several legislators I spoke with noted a significant thaw in the relationship between the leaders of the two branches. Further, the success on this issue and with each side declaring the others to be “honest brokers” suggests growing trust between the two parties. In fact, less than a month after signing the school re-opening bill, the legislature passed the once controversial Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2021 with just five dissenting votes. Even with the new budget, while there is disagreement on priorities, legislative Republicans did not describe it as DOA and expressed a willingness to work together that was not evident with previous budgets. If it can happen in a state where the two parties had been so divided , maybe it can happen in other states too!