It began with flubs. It ended in fury. And it made North Carolina politics even more rancorous and destructive. I’m referring, of course, to a 55-9 vote in the House last week to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget veto.
Ever since Cooper vetoed a budget enacted by the Republican-majority General Assembly, legislative leaders have promised to seek an override if they thought the votes were there. At the same time, lawmakers have been enacting, and Cooper usually signing, separate bills advancing consensus budget items.
On Tuesday, September 10, the House added two of those “mini-budget” bills to its calendar for the next day. As the session ended, House Rules Committee chairman David Lewis, who was presiding, made no other announcement about whether votes would be taken at the session scheduled for Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.
Rep. Darren Jackson, the House minority leader, approached Lewis. Both men agree Jackson asked Lewis whether votes would be taken. But Lewis says he thought he was being asked the mini-budget bills. Lewis assured Jackson that no vote would be taken on those bills at the morning session until the Democrats could caucus on them.
Jackson’s account is different. He says Lewis told him there would be “no votes” at the morning session, on anything. Lewis later responded to a WRAL-TV reporter’s question about the session with a text stating “no votes.” Lewis says he meant he didn’t expect any votes to be taken at the morning session, not that he had been so informed by the person authorized to make that decision, House Speaker Tim Moore.
Meanwhile, key members of both chambers had begun to redraw legislative districts in response to a court order in a partisan-gerrymandering case that Democrats had brought and Republicans had chosen not to appeal. It’s a tricky process governed by a tight timetable. Both sides had alternatively worked with and accused the other of violating the order.
A rumor swept through Republican ranks Tuesday that Democrats might try to use the Wednesday morning session to make some redistricting-related motion. At the same time, Jackson informed the Democratic caucus there would be no votes held at that session.
So, the stage for the override was set. In response to the redistricting rumor, GOP whips contacted some commuting lawmakers to make sure they’d be present. And in response to Jackson’s assurance, made in good faith, most House Democrats weren’t in the chamber that morning — although most were in and around the legislative complex, in their offices or prepping for committees (including a 9 a.m. meeting of some Democratic lawmakers to discuss redistricting).
Many Democrats now believe there was a conspiracy, that Republicans either found out about the Lewis-Jackson miscommunication ahead of time and schemed to capitalize on it or, more outlandishly, that Lewis had actively misled Jackson and the media.
The evidence doesn’t support this theory. The audio from the session clearly shows Speaker Moore and other Republicans surprised there were so few Democrats present. They are not such skilled thespians. Moreover, Moore had not pulled out all the stops to get his entire caucus there. Some were missing. Democrats could have blocked the override vote by exiting the chamber to deny a quorum.
Later on Wednesday, as the nature of the Lewis-Jackson miscommunication came to light, Democrats made a motion on the floor to recall the budget bill from the Senate in the interest of fairness. The Republicans refused.
I think reconsideration was a reasonable request. But consider this: Gov. Cooper and some Democrats had just spent hours propagating a false and deeply offensive accusation that Republicans had held the veto override while the Democrats were at a 9/11 ceremony. That’s why the story made national news. That’s why GOP legislators and staffers were inundated with hate-filled emails and threatening calls from around the country.
Civility and trust among North Carolina politicians were already being sorely tested. This episode has greatly damaged both. It was not a comedy of errors. It was a tragedy.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide on UNC-TV.