North Carolina

NC House overrides budget veto in surprise vote with almost half of lawmakers absent

Democratic Rep. Deb Butler: ‘How dare you do this, Mr. Speaker’

Rep. Deb Butler (D) and her Democratic colleagues protest an unexpected vote in the NC House to override Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the budget.
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Rep. Deb Butler (D) and her Democratic colleagues protest an unexpected vote in the NC House to override Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the budget.

In an early-morning move that shocked and angered Democrats in the chamber, the N.C. House of Representatives voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget. Just over half of the 120 members were present to vote.

Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, made the motion to reconsider the state budget, and chaos in the chamber quickly ensued. Democrats in the chamber vehemently objected to the bill being brought up, saying they were told there would be no votes during the 8:30 a.m. session and that the session was just a formality so work could begin.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, denied that such an announcement was made, and even asked the House Clerk to back him up. That prompted an outburst from Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover.

“This is a travesty of the process and you know it,” Butler shouted when the vote was called, noting that Democratic leadership was not present. “We will not yield.”

Moore ignored the objections of the Democrats who were in the room and instead mowed through the vote with only 64 members voting. The vote was 55-9. Later, multiple Democratic House members who were there but who weren’t able to vote in time had their votes recorded as “no.”

But it still wasn’t enough to change the outcome.

About three hours after the morning vote, Cooper held a press conference to condemn Republicans for what he called “an assault on our Democracy.” He’s been in a stalemate over the budget with Republican leaders for months and was caught off-guard by Wednesday’s vote.

Gov. Roy Cooper decried the vote to override his veto of the budget: “Today, on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, while the state was honoring first responders, Republicans called a deceptive, surprise override of my budget veto.”

“Today, on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, while the state was honoring first responders, Republicans called a deceptive, surprise override of my budget veto,” he said.

“On a day when tragedy united our country, we should be standing together despite party,” Cooper said. Instead, he said, “the Republican caucus was laying in wait, ready for this.”

“I have never seen anything like this in my 30-plus years in state government,” he said.

Later, Cooper appeared on MSNBC and said he thought the House’s vote was “illegal.”

“I also believe that it is unethical,” he told MSNBC host Ali Veshli. “And I think it’s all part and parcel of this Republican leadership and our legislature, which in fact is not reflective of who we are as North Carolinians.”

On MSNBC, Cooper said the Republican lawmakers were elected in “illegally gerrymandered districts” drawn with “partisanship in mind first and foremost.” He did not mention Moore by name.

“And I think it is the last gasp of a dying majority here,” Cooper said. “And every single one of those House members and state senators are going to be up for election next year along with me running for re-election for governor. And there will be a judgment day in North Carolina.”

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The budget impasse had dragged out all summer long though some pieces of the budget have been passed, including raises for many state employees. Cooper had complained that the override vote was on the House calendar repeatedly since first being placed there on July 9, but no vote had been held.

On MSNBC, Cooper said the legislators have put their lives on hold for the past two months, changed their vacations and even adjusted chemotherapy treatments to ensure they would be present for any vote.

“They couldn’t get the votes, so what they did was lie,” he said.

Moore responded to Cooper and Democrats at a 1 p.m. press conference, where he denied that any promises were made about a “no vote” session. The budget was on Wednesday’s calendar and included no disclaimer that there wouldn’t be a vote.

“I’ve made it clear. I’ve said it from right here, on the floor, everywhere: If I see an opportunity to override this budget, this veto, I was gonna take that vote,” Moore said.

“If they didn’t want it to pass, all they have to do is show up for work,” he said.

NC House speaker Tim Moore tells reporters that it was his decision to call for a vote on the morning of Sept. 11, 2019 overriding the Governor's veto of the House budet. The vote caught Democrats, many of whom were absent, by surprise.

About the vote: He said, he said

Democrats say the heart of the issue isn’t what was written on the calendar, but what they were told by House GOP leadership. House Democratic leader Darren Jackson of Wake County said he was told by Republican Rep. David Lewis, of Harnett County, that no votes would be held during the morning session. So Jackson told the Democratic caucus that they didn’t need to be there.

Lewis, who presided over the House Tuesday, denied that claim during the GOP press conference.

He acknowledged texting a WRAL reporter Tuesday night to tell her he thought there would be no votes during the Wednesday morning session. But Lewis didn’t relay that prediction to anyone else, he said.

“At any time that there has been a no-vote session scheduled, the chair has either announced that from the dais, or has sent an email, or both,” Lewis said. “None of those occurred yesterday.”

And yet, Democrats say they got the impression they didn’t need to be in attendance.

Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County, attended a 9/11 memorial event in Raeford instead.

On the House floor, Pierce called the decision to vote “a bit much.”

“I know you gotta do what you gotta do. ... Mr. Speaker, that was not the way to do it,” Pierce said. “I wish you well and God bless you.”

How the vote happened

The House can conduct business so long as it has a quorum — at least 61 lawmakers — present. Both chambers of the General Assembly need three-fifths majority of the members present and voting to override a veto from the governor. With 67 lawmakers present, only 40 votes were needed for the override.

Wednesday morning, there were only about a dozen Democrats on the floor, and they did not all have a chance to vote, they told reporters. Jackson said that microphones were cut off.

Butler told reporters that she was threatened with arrest on the House floor. She called the Republicans’ action “scorched earth politics” and an “embarrassment.”

“The trickery that is being evidenced by this morning is tantamount to a criminal offense,” Butler said.

Butler described the vote as a “hijacking of the process.”

Rep. John Autry, a Mecklenburg Democrat, posted to Facebook video he took during the session of Butler interacting with the speaker.

N.C. Rep. Mary Belk, D-Mecklenburg, talks during a press conference about the morning vote by the N.C. House of Representatives to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget with just over half of the 120 members present to vote.

Wednesday afternoon, Democrats asked Republicans to recall the vote. Rep. Robert Reives, a Democratic leader from Chatham County, said he feared the tensions would ruin working relationships in the months to come.

“All we’re asking is that we do things a proper way so we don’t have probably the most toxic work environment that we’ve had, for the next two months we’re working together,” Reives said.

The House held a recall vote, but it failed.

Earlier in the day, Jackson talked about trust in the building.

“If we can’t trust each other, this place will fall apart, it’s just too big an entity to run, too many processes to require for everything to be in writing,” Jackson said. He said if someone with power tells you something is going to happen, you have to trust that it will.

Jackson and Lewis spoke to each other on the floor Wednesday afternoon about trust, too. Jackson said he’s not calling Lewis “a liar.”

Lewis said he believes Jackson was convinced he heard something that Lewis didn’t say.

Moore said during the afternoon House session that he’s the one who decides whether to hold votes.

“When I say that there are no votes that are going to happen, there are no votes that are going to happen,” Moore said.

“If I do see an opportunity to carry the will of the majority of the House and see this veto overridden, I will do so,” he said.

Lewis said he publicly announced that there would be votes Wednesday.

“As House Democrats are well aware, no vote sessions are explicitly announced from the chair, on the floor” or from the speaker’s email account, Lewis said.

What’s next for the state budget

The state budget still can’t pass without the Senate also overriding Cooper’s veto. However, the Republican majority only needs one Democrat to vote with all of them to obtain the necessary override. The override vote had not been added to the Senate calendar as of late Wednesday afternoon.

Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the Senate is focused on redistricting right now.

“Redistricting committee will continue its work and it’s our expectation that it will complete its work sometime before Monday. We will see how that goes. We will have a voting session in the morning, I do not anticipate any voting session after tomorrow morning, until Monday,” Berger said.

Berger didn’t have anything to say about the budget or a veto override.

“We are laser-focused on trying to get this redistricting taken care of. Once that’s done I will be more than happy to talk about what may happen, what may not happen, what could happen, what supposedly could happen … We have no plans to deal with the budget this week,” he said.

The reason for the months-long budget standoff was Medicaid expansion. The governor and Democrats want it, and Republican leaders, particularly in the Senate, said repeatedly they do not. The “mini-budget” bills passed recently were a way to move less-controversial aspects of the budget forward, like state employees raises. Those raises are the same as the ones in the budget.

Also at play is the Taxpayer Refund Act, which already was passed by the Senate. While the plan to refund most of the budget surplus to taxpayers was announced during the budget standoff, it is not tied to the veto or override. The House could still pass that bill, which would then go to the governor to sign or veto.

Rep. Deb Butler (D) leads a chorus of Democratic voices protesting an unexpected vote in the NC House to override Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the budget.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
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