RALEIGH — It’s a classic “he said, he said.”
While a majority of the Democratic caucus was absent, Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 11 called for a vote to override the governor’s budget veto.
Democratic lawmakers decry the move as partisan trickery. House Republicans call it a move of opportunity. Either way, feelings are hurt, and insults and vitriol composed the soundtrack for the day.
Fifty-five House lawmakers voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the $24 billion budget. Nine lawmakers, all Democrats, voted against it. The Senate didn’t take up the override Wednesday.
Many were absent, assuming the morning session would have no votes. Committee meetings were on the calendar. A few said they planned to attend 9/11 memorial events.
The assumptions may have been little more than a misunderstanding. If so, it was a big one.
House Democrats reacted quickly. They held a news conference shortly after session went into recess. Democratic leader Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, told him that there would be no votes held at 8:30 a.m.
Lewis is the House Rules Committee chairman and presided over Tuesday’s session.
“I was told we [Democrats] could caucus at 11 a.m. and that session would be at 1 p.m. for recognition of first responders,” Jackson said.
Lewis, in a news conference later Wednesday, said otherwise.
“I never said or represented to any member that there would be no recorded votes this morning session,” Lewis said.
Jackson, for his part, took some of the blame. He said it was his responsibility to ensure House Democrats attended the session. But, Jackson said, he was led to believe it was safe for lawmakers to attend to other business in the morning.
Cooper held a midday news conference of his own, during which he said Republicans have pulled their most deceptive stunt yet. And on a day meant for unity in remembrance of a national tragedy.
“Let me be clear. Today, Republicans waged an assault on our democracy,” Cooper said. “They cheated the people of North Carolina.”
Hold on, House Republicans say.
In a news conference, Moore said he made no promises that no vote would be held. The override item was, and has been, on the legislative calendar.
“I have made it clear … if I see an opportunity to override this veto that I was going to take that vote,” Moore said.
Moore said he confirmed with the clerk that no notice was sent saying there wouldn’t be any recorded votes today. When Moore noticed he had the numbers to override the veto, he went ahead with a vote.
“While some want to turn around and fuss and argue about procedure … if they didn’t want it to pass all they had to do was show up to work,” Moore said.
Moore said audio from the Sept. 10 session clearly shows Lewis, who was acting as chair in place of Moore, announcing two mini budgets for the Sept. 11 calendar.
Lewis said Rep. Jackson approached him at the dais and asked whether Democrats had time to caucus.
“I recall telling Rep. Jackson that they could caucus before the House would vote on the two budget bills that were added to the calendar,” Lewis said.
House Republicans argue House Democrats weren’t in the chamber because they were drawing maps in the basement of the legislative building. If, however, House Democrats were indeed drawing maps in the building’s basement, they were violating a court order on redistricting, Republicans say.
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, told Carolina Journal the court order applies to the entire General Assembly and not just those named in the redistricting lawsuit.
Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, said Democrats were absent this morning during the override vote because they were “downstairs, right now, trying to redraw partisan-heavy maps.” She was incensed.
Pinsky said Butler may have been facetious in making those statements.
House Democrats present for the veto override surrounded Butler as she yelled at Moore for holding the vote with few Democrats in the chamber. She said they were there to protect her from arrest.
“We have been called in North Carolina a place of scorched-earth politics,” Butler said. “It’s an embarrassment, a tragedy, and something these fine people live with every day.”
The timing of the veto override is baffling, Andy Taylor, political professor at N.C. State University, said.
During the budget stalemate, Republicans pushed out mini budgets to get around the veto. Taylor said that tactic seemed to be working, so he isn’t sure why Republicans decided to abandon it.
The budget stalemate revolved around Medicaid expansion. Cooper wanted a budget with Medicaid expansion, Republicans steadfastly opposed it. If Republicans wanted to continue the status quo without Medicaid expansion, then all they had to do was go home, Taylor said.
They opted to override.
“By doing this they give some of the political momentum back to the governor and the Democrats, and they’ve underdone the strategically smart work of going with the baby budget incremental approach,” Taylor said.
Chris Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University, said Republicans traded bad optics for closure in the budget stalemate.
“This contributes to a sense that while Republicans are playing by the rules, they may not be the most ethical sense of those rules,” Cooper said.
The veto override won’t do any good for the already strained relationship between Democrats and Republicans, Cooper said. Republicans may have gotten a budget, but at what cost?
A scorched earth is hard to till.