The N.C. General Assembly barely had a quorum when it overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the Republican budget.
But with an initial vote of 55-9 that went down party lines, that is exactly what happened. As the 8:30 a.m. session progressed Wednesday, pandemonium erupted on the floor, leaving folks across the state scratching their heads.
North Carolina has been operating without a budget since July 1 as the Democrats and Republicans have been at an impasse over Medicaid expansion and teacher salary levels. The state was operating at last year’s levels, and several smaller bills that included items already in the budget were passed separately as both parties jockeyed for an advantage to pass their version of the budget.
Stories vary regarding the events leading up to the vote.
Democrats say the house rules committee chairman, Rep. David Lewis, told the minority leader, Rep. Darren Jackson, that there would be no votes held during the morning session, leaving many of the Democrats to feel safe tending to other business. Some spent that time working, and others attended 9/11 memorial ceremonies.
While it seems the public will never find out exactly what was said between Lewis and Jackson, there is a text message between Lewis and WRAL reporter Laura Leslie that reads “No votes at 8:30.” As a result, no press was present during the vote.
Republicans, and specifically Rep. Lewis and Speaker Moore, maintain they did nothing wrong.
“The Speaker and I are both serving our ninth term in the House,” Lewis said in a release sent out by Moore’s office. “We have far too much respect for this institution to tell the other party there would be no recorded votes, and then hold a vote.”
“I’ve always been very clear,” Moore said in that release. “When I’ve told folks there’s not going to be votes, there are not votes. I’ve kept my word on that. I challenge any member to argue to the contrary. I never said there weren’t going to be votes. I never authorized anyone to say there wouldn’t be votes.”
Unlike many states, North Carolina does not require 60 percent of all legislators to vote to override a veto, only 60 percent of all present legislators. Most Democrats were off tending to other business and weren’t present when the vote was taken
Chris Cooper, who heads up Western Carolina University’s political science program, said he has never seen either party pull a move like this on something as consequential as a budget.
“There may be some precedent in the past, but I don’t know what it is,” he said.
Cooper said it made sense that Democrats would be preoccupied with other tasks, considering they didn’t think there would be a vote that morning.
“They may have been paying attention to redistricting maps or doing one of the other thousands of things legislators do,” Cooper said.
Take for example Rep. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat representing Haywood and Jackson counties.
“I’m working wildly on the redistricting committee,” he said. “We have lots of data, big reports and a 300-page court finding, all of which we’re trying to digest and make maps out of. I was working on that. We had every reason to believe it was business as usual.”
That was not the case. By 8:45 a.m., Queen said he and other Democrats were bombarded with texts and emails about the vote.
“We were huckleberried,” he said.
Queen said it was disheartening and infuriating, especially after Democrats had been present in Raleigh as a unified front since early July, much longer than they are obligated to be, to make sure the Republicans didn’t try to sneak a veto override vote by them. That effort was all for naught, as later Wednesday, the call to reconsider the vote failed along party lines.
“Day after day, week after week, month after month we were there, and they can still trap you somehow,” he said.
“I think it’s definitely intentional on the part of the speaker,” he said.
Rep. Michele Presnell, a Republican who represents the eastern portion of Haywood, was present and voted in favor of the veto override. She said she didn’t know the vote would come up that morning, but she was thrilled when it did.
“I just turned around in my seat and didn’t pay much attention,” she said. “I could tell there was a little talking among people. I didn’t have any idea until the speaker said it. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is it. This is what we were hoping would happen.’”
Presnell denies that there was any conspiracy to hold the vote while Democrats were away, at least to her knowledge.
“I never got an email on a skeleton session,” she said. “I never got a text. Nothing. I thought it was a regular meeting.”
However, Presnell also admitted that it was the Republicans’ plan all along to hold the vote as soon as there were enough Democrats absent to get the result they wanted. That’s why it had been on the agenda every day for the last two months.
“Whenever we could get the Democrats to not show up for whatever reason,” she said. “That’s exactly what we’ve been looking for.”
“[Moore] said, ‘when I find the moment, when the time comes,’” she added. “And it was like, we finally did that. We finally got the override of the veto.”
Where to from here?
Now, it’s the senate’s turn to vote for a veto override. Should that fail, the parties would have to return to the negotiating table or continue operating on last year’s budget.
Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin, who represents a seven-county district that includes Haywood, said he was happy that the Republicans in the House were able to override Gov. Cooper’s veto and added that he didn’t have a problem with how it was done.
“I have to take the speaker at his word that no advance notice was given,” he said.
However, Davis did note that things are a bit different in the senate, which is required to give 24 hours notice prior to holding a vote.
Davis said he believes the vote will come early next week. As of Thursday afternoon, the 24 hours notice has not been given. Davis added that he will vote in favor of the veto override.
“I think there’s a lot of good things in the budget for my district,” he said. “Like 30-some million just for education.”
Queen is hoping his fellow Democrats in the Senate can hold strong. If even one is absent, that body will be able to set the override in stone, thus securing the Republican budget.
Queen is confident the Senate Democrats will hold strong.
“The senate is going to hold,” he added. “Every one of them has declared that to me personally.”
Fear and loathing on Jones Street
The few Democrats on the floor during the veto override vote were livid. By Wednesday afternoon, a video of Rep. Deb Butler objecting to the vote went viral.
In that video, Butler passionately continued her objection, even as her mic was cut off, as fellow Democrats surrounded her to provide a buffer from those trying to interfere as Rep. John Autry filmed the whole scene on his cell phone.
“You shall not usurp the process, Mr. Speaker,” she said.
“Your leadership is an embarrassment to the great history of this state,” she added.
One line in particular has already become a mantra for Democrats across the country and trended on Twitter Wednesday.
“I will not yield,” she said repeatedly.
Presnell said the mood was tense on the floor throughout the voting process, especially when Butler had the microphone.
“I thought to myself, ‘my God, she’s going to have a heart attack,’” she said.
Although Queen wasn’t on the floor for the vote, he offered his thoughts.
“This is the saddest moment ever in my legislative experience,” he said. “It was just a deceptive trap that we somehow got caught in. We were under the impression that all the Democrats thought it was just an admin session and the vote would be at 1.”
“Nobody likes to be deceived about something as important as this budget,” he added.
Cooper said he believes nothing illegal was done on the part of Speaker Moore or the Republicans since the budget has been on the agenda every day, but believed the ethics of the decision should be called into question.
When asked if the last bastion of trust has disappeared from the general assembly he laughed at first.
“I think it probably has,” he said.
Presnell doesn’t feel that way. While it seems the vitriol created in the wake of the Republican maneuver could hinder compromise in the future, she believes the General Assembly can still work together in the best interest of North Carolinians.
“We can still compromise,” she said, citing things such as the recent bill that banned high-powered fireworks. “The people put us in there to legislate and to get things done for our state and that’s what we’re doing.”
Gov. Roy Cooper, who was at a 9/11 memorial event when the vote was held, said in a press conference that Wednesday’s vote was Republicans’ “most deceptive stunt yet.”
“They used lies, bribes and illegal districts, because their policies damage our state,” he said.
Even the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer eviscerated Republican leadership in Wednesday editorials.
“This isn’t a case simply of hardball politics and sly legislative maneuvering,” The News and Observer editorial reads. “This is a case of breaking faith with the people of North Carolina and with all who strove and sacrificed over generations to protect and advance North Carolina’s political system as one based on a true representation of the people’s will, a true democracy.”
The editorial also highlights that the vote amounts to an illegitimate decision made my an illegitimate body.
“The legislation at issue isn’t a bill of limited scope,” it reads. “It is the state budget. It is how North Carolina defines itself by the priorities it sets in spending. And it’s being held up by a dispute over a major issue that involves billions of federal dollars and ultimately affects everyone in the state, Medicaid expansion.”
Several national, state and local political organizations headed to Raleigh Thursday morning to call for Speaker Moore’s resignation. Leading a contingent from Western North Carolina was Chelsea Hoglen of Down Home North Carolina.
“I think the reason they went about this so unlawfully today is that they knew we knew we had the larger majority in the senate,” she said Wednesday.
“All of the rules are gone now, spoken and unspoken,” she added.
Hoglen added that she believes this was a “panic move” from Republicans. Considering the districts they were elected within are determined to be illegitimate, she thinks they are grasping for power anywhere they can find it and taking that power any way they can.
Wednesday afternoon, Hoglen was still hopeful that a recall vote could work in Democrats’ favor, but that was not the case. Thursday after the protest, she again spoke with The Mountaineer. She estimated there were about 150-200 protestors present, of which five or so were from Haywood or Jackson counties.
The protest began at 8 a.m. and Hoglen said she saw some representatives.
“The only ones we saw were representatives that did not participate in the ambush,” she said, adding that she recalled seeing Sen. Terry Van Duyn and Rep. Garland Pierce.
Perhaps most notably, Hoglen said the crowd’s energy surged when Butler came out of the General Assembly.
“You could feel the energy,” she said. “Folks felt she had been the voice of the people in that meeting that took place.”
“Folks started chanting, ‘I will not yield,’” she added.
Later in the morning, a group of protesters that included Hoglen approached Speaker Moore’s office to hand him a letter demanding his resignation. While he didn’t come out of his office, a legislative assistant did.
“He informed us that he had not heard about the speaker’s resignation but that he would take the letter to the speaker,” Hoglen said, adding that a group of Raleigh-based protestors would return later in the day to see if Speaker Moore would sign it.
A 2020 talking point
While overriding Gov. Cooper’s veto on the budget may be a major win for Republicans in some ways, it may hurt them politically come 2020. Queen is already using the tactics deployed in the vote as a talking point.
“It erodes the trust and integrity of the General Assembly,” he said. “There should not be a voter in 2020 that is not upset by this.”
“Just show up in November 2020,” he added. “We’re taking the state back.”
Likewise, now that the Senate has been handed this “poison pill,” as Cooper called it, members of that body may be put between a rock and a hard place politically.
And that political impact can trickle upward.
“If it passes in the senate, (Gov.) Cooper will have the best talking point ever in 2020,” Cooper said.
Evidence of this has already been seen. As early as Wednesday night, Rep. Butler went on MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, where she was able to deliver her talking points, from education to healthcare, to a national audience.
“Our water is contaminated because we have not fully funded The Department of Environmental Quality,” she said. “Our schools are crumbling because of a lack of infrastructure. And we have our working poor who have not enjoyed healthcare because of our failure to expand Medicaid.”
“This has put steel in the spine of every person in my caucus,” she also said.
But ultimately, Butler — and other Democrats — have renewed their promise to their constituents.
“I’m totally humiliated that North Carolina has sunk to this level,” she said. “And again, I will not yield. I will not yield.”