North Carolina

NC GOP rocked the legislature with a surprise vote. What exactly happened, and why?

Democrats react angrily in NC legislature over budget veto override

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

North Carolina legislators made national news Wednesday when they took a vote on the state budget with many Democrats absent.

The move prompted protests in the General Assembly in downtown Raleigh. It generated a video of a lawmaker’s angry outburst that quickly went viral. And it drew criticism from people across the country.

Here’s what happened.

What was the vote over?

Wednesday morning’s controversial vote was over a state budget written by Republicans in the legislature.

The House and Senate passed the GOP-written budget, but Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it on June 5.

Republicans don’t have a supermajority in the House or the Senate. In order to override Cooper’s veto, they needed Democrats to vote with them or wait until a day when enough Democrats were absent to give them the edge they needed.

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Why hasn’t North Carolina’s budget passed yet?

The reason for the months-long budget standoff has been Medicaid expansion.

The Democratic governor and other Democrats want it. Republican leaders, particularly in the Senate, said repeatedly they do not. Cooper said he wanted Medicaid expansion as part of budget negotiations, and it was the main reason for his veto.

Cooper produced a counteroffer to the budget, but instead the House put the budget veto override on the calendar every day, but didn’t call for a vote until Wednesday. Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, repeatedly told the press and public he would call the vote when he thought he had enough votes for an override.

Instead, mini budget bills passed recently as 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.

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Did Republicans break any rules?

No. The budget override was on the calendar for Wednesday’s morning session.

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House Speaker Moore controls the votes. On the floor before the vote, Moore asked the clerk if any announcement or rule would prevent them from voting.

“I confirmed that there was never any notice that went out saying there would not be recorded votes,” Moore said.

Democrats say many of their members missed the morning session because they were told verbally that there would be no vote on the budget.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said Rep. David Lewis, a Republican who presided as House speaker on Tuesday, told him there would be no vote. Lewis disputes that.

Where were Democrats?

Some headlines suggested that Democrats were at events commemorating the 9/11 attacks — the vote was taken at roughly the same time as the national moment of silence. But The News & Observer has confirmed only two Democrats attended 9/11 events.

One was Cooper, who spoke at the North Carolina National Guard’s Sept. 11 commemoration in Raleigh.

The other was Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat, who says he attended an event in Raeford.

Who is Rep. Deb Butler from the viral video?

Rep. Deb Butler is a Wilmington Democrat who started yelling in objection the override vote. Video of the Democratic Whip’s speech went viral on Twitter, and her shouts of “I will not yield” generated a trending hashtag: #Iwillnotyield. Thursday, that had turned into #WeWillNotYield.

Butler, a longtime Wilmington lawyer and advocate for the city’s downtown area, was appointed in early 2017 to the seat held by then Rep. Susi Hamilton after Cooper named Hamilton his secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

In 2018, Butler easily won re-election to represent a district that encompasses downtown Wilmington and parts of northern Brunswick County. During her first term in office, Butler emerged as a sometimes-fiery ally of Cooper’s administration, particularly on environmental issues.

Months after Butler’s initial appointment, the Wilmington StarNews reported Chemours was discharging industrial chemicals from its plant near Fayetteville that were making their way into Wilmington-area drinking water. Butler, who has often likened events on Jones Street to political theater, argued that Republican-led measures to address GenX and similar chemicals were insufficient and far short of what Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality was requesting.

As the House worked to chart a path forward in the wake of the GenX revelation, Butler was the only Wilmington-area member of the House not appointed by Speaker Moore to the House Select Committee on N.C. River Quality.

Displaying her growing frustration with Republican leadership, the StarNews reported in September 2017 that Butler said, “Just the unabashed partisanship of it all — there’s no other reason to exclude me from it except for the fact that I’m a Democrat. That is the only reason.”

What happens next?

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 had not been added to the Senate calendar as of late Wednesday afternoon.

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.
Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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