RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina state senator said on Tuesday he wasn't on the Senate floor for a close veto override vote on legislation mandating the reopening of public schools because he needed to work for his full-time employer.
Sen. Ben Clark, a Hoke County Democrat, requested and received a leave of absence for Monday's session. The Senate convened in the evening, during which Republican senators failed to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a GOP measure that directed K-12 school districts to offer in-person instruction to all students in about two weeks.
The 29-20 override vote fell just shy of the three-fifths majority needed for passage and to send the question on to the House. Clark was a named co-sponsor of the original measure and one of three Senate Democrats who cast “yes” votes to the final bill last month.
Monday's override would have been successful in the Senate had two of the three Democrats joined all Republicans in continuing to support the bill. Among the three, Sen. Paul Lowe of Forsyth County voted to uphold the veto and Sen. Kirk deViere of Cumberland County voted to override. Equipped with Clark’s explanation, Senate Republicans announced late Tuesday they would conduct a parliamentary maneuver Wednesday so they could try again the override vote at a later date — preferrably with Clark in attendance.
Clark wrote in an email Tuesday to The Associated Press that he was unavailable for Monday night's session because “I was engaged in work on behalf of my employer.” He works for a defense contractor at Fort Bragg. While such leaves of absence are common, they get more attention when a key floor vote occurs.
Barring other voting changes, the override would have been successful in the Senate had Clark been present and voted “yes.” Clark declined to say Tuesday how he would have voted, writing that at this point it “would be considered disingenuous by most.”
“I had my preference," he added, pointing out he was a bill co-sponsor and has "a desire to get students back into the classroom quickly and safely. Yet, I must acknowledge that acting upon my voting preference was and always is subject to several factors on the ground at the time of the vote.”
Senate leader Phil Berger's office said late Tuesday the chamber would hold a vote Wednesday on a motion to reconsider the veto override. A simple majority is required. If approved, Republicans then would only have to give 24 hours' notice to Democrats before holding another override vote on the bill.
“If he voted ‘yes’ then the override would have been successful,” Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said in a news release. "We intend to provide Sen. Clark the opportunity to advance the bill that bears his name.”
Lowe told The News & Observer of Raleigh on Monday evening that he wound up siding with Cooper because “he asked. I am a Democrat. He’s the governor, and a Democratic governor.”
Cooper vetoed the bill late last week, saying it would threaten public health -- particularly since district leaders would have been able to reopen middle and high schools without requiring 6 feet (1.8 meters) of social distancing between people. That would run counter to state health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. He urged lawmakers to rework the bill to find a compromise.
While Cooper has said nearly all school districts will offer some kind of in-person instruction by mid-March, that didn't guarantee five-day classroom options for any student who wants it. Bill supporters said an in-person mandate is needed because students are falling behind academically and facing mental health challenges with the isolation that virtual learning has brought since March 2020.