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The above-the-fold headline in today’s N&O might as well be an in-kind donation to the Republican Party. Indeed, it’s exactly what Republicans in the General Assembly want people to see: them giving school districts a break from the onerous K–3 class-size rules that so riled local leaders all over the state, while increasing funds for schools. Never mind that they were fixing their own error: the problem with the class-size rules wasn’t the rules themselves—everyone wants smaller class sizes—but rather the fact that it was an underfunded mandate issued by Jones Street that would put the squeeze to school administrators. In essence, Republicans could brag about reducing class sizes while forcing local taxpayers to eat most of the bill or gut art and music programs, or both. Again, never mind that. The bigger problem with that headline—and, of course, it’s difficult to capture all the nuances of a complex story in a couple of words, believe me—is that it ignores what that bill is really all about: the ongoing power struggle between the legislature and Governor Cooper.

  • First, we’ll tackle the class-size element, which the N&O’s story does adequately enough: “State Republican legislative leaders said they will phase in the smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade over the next four years instead of lowering them at once this fall. As part of the delay, lawmakers will include $61 million a year to help school districts pay for art, music and physical education teachers. The deal comes after school officials around the state said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed and might have to fire arts and PE teachers to help come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers.”
  • All that’s fine—better than fine, in fact. But, with the General Assembly being the General Assembly, there’s a catch. House Bill 90, as I wrote yesterday [INDY], “does a lot more than address class sizes. There are also two provisions Governor Cooper and legislative Democrats are almost certain to oppose—which the Republicans can then use as a political cudgel, accusing them of being anti-education.”
  • The first essentially reclaims the $58 million Cooper received from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline developers for a mitigation fund at the same time his Department of Environmental Quality approved the deal and reroutes it to schools within the ACP’s path. This is a subplot in a larger narrative Republicans are trying to cook up that Cooper is corrupt. I’ll get to that below.
  • The second is that it once again—for the third time—rejiggers the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, again making it a bipartisan board but now with an unaffiliated tie-breaker. Twice, state courts have struck down GOP efforts to strip Cooper of control of the board—as the party that holds the Executive Mansion traditionally does—and twice, Republicans have responded by tweaking their legislation and putting it back in play. This time is particularly pernicious: they know Cooper’s going to veto the bill, so they’ll get to run ads trashing him for opposing class sizes.

WHAT IT MEANS: Republicans, who control supermajorities in both chambers and thus don’t have to consult Democrats on anything, are essentially daring them to vote no on a bill that will almost assuredly become law, thus setting up the GOP to be a pro-education party in the coming legislative elections, in which both parties will focus their efforts on suburban areas where voters care very much about these things. And while they’re at it, they’re trying to gin up a Cooper scandal, because he’s far more popular than they are (or than Pat McCrory ever was).

  • The scandal works like this: Cooper’s mitigation fund, which he would control, is a bribe and/or slush fund. Compounding things is that Cooper’s new legislative affairs director lobbied for one of the companies involved in the ACP, which isn’t a good look for the governor. So yesterday, before Phil Berger and Tim Moore introduced legislation that would strip Cooper of his control of the mitigation fund, Republican lawmakers spent Thursday grilling that legislative affairs director, Lee Lilley, about the ethics and legality of the fund. It was very much an orchestrated hit.
  • From the N&O: “Lee Lilley, Cooper’s legislative affairs director as of Jan. 31, spent nearly an hour before a joint appropriations committee, deflecting a barrage of questions about the ethics and legality of the fund, the terms of which give Cooper spending control. Lilley agreed to respond to written questions at a later time. Democrats fumed over Lilley’s harsh treatment, saying he was invited to introduce himself to lawmakers and lured into a trap. ‘In 10 years I’ve never seen anything as shameful as what has happened today,’ said Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County.”
  • “Lilley, 34, came under fire because of his past employment with lobbying powerhouse McGuireWoods Consulting. One of his clients was Richmond-based Dominion Resources, the holding company for Dominion Energy. Dominion is one of the lead partners on the 600-mile interstate pipeline, along with Charlotte-based Duke Energy. Republican legislators demanded information from Lilley about the environmental mitigation fund and his role in the negotiations for it. In the few questions Lilley answered Thursday, he said he lobbied for Dominion on federal issues before federal agencies. He claimed limited familiarity with the contested fund, which is broadly designated for investment in renewable energy, environmental remediation and on economic development. Legislators were skeptical.”
  • “Critics on both sides have said the fund appears like a fee paid by Atlantic Coast Pipeline in exchange for a permit. Republicans are further irate that Cooper would control the funds, which they said would be politically motivated and awarded to environmental organizations that form Cooper’s political base.”
  • The bottom line: The Republicans have a point. While a developer-paid mitigation fund for a project as potentially dangerous as the ACP isn’t the worst idea in the world, the optics do smack of a bribe, or at least a payment for service, and Cooper’s insistence that the payment was completely voluntary and unconnected to the DEQ’s approval strains credulity. Still, whether that constitutes the “appearance of evil,” as state Representative Dean Arp hyperventilated yesterday, depends on your perspective. Me? I think it’s generally good and reasonable policy to require rich corporations running risky pipelines through people’s backyards to pay to offset any damage that occurs in the process—and I hardly think it’s evil to require that before granting permits. But, for a smart pol, Cooper played his hand incredibly badly, and the Republicans may well succeed in giving him a black eye for it.