RALEIGH — Just after 1 a.m. today, in a secreted session critics called unconstitutional, Republican legislative leaders passed a bill aimed at weakening the state's largest teachers association.
Two Democrats -- state Reps. William Brisson and Jim Crawford -- broke party ranks to join Republicans in a 69 to 45 vote to override Perdue's veto of the measure, Senate Bill 727. The 1:12 a.m. vote means teachers who belong to the N.C. Association of Educators can no longer have their NCAE dues deducted automatically from their paychecks.
The move upended a special session called by Gov. Bev Perdue to consider her veto of an entirely different bill dealing with the state's Racial Justice Act, which give greater leeway to convicted murderers appealing sentences based on racial bias. At 4:26 p.m., the Senate voted 31-19 along party lines to override the veto.
But House Republicans apparently couldn't find the votes to follow suit and instead scheduled their own special session to handle other bills vetoed by the governor that convened at 12:45 a.m. For most of the day, Republicans met behind closed doors and rumors swirled about consideration of the controversial energy bill or a contentious voter ID measure. In the end, House leaders only had the vote on the teachers dues bill, taking advantage of absences by Democrats.
In a statement issued at 1:16 a.m., Perdue called the lawmakers actions unconstitutional. "The Republicans in the General Assembly didn't have the votes to get what they wanted legally," she said. "So, in the dark of night, they engaged in an unprecedented, unconstitutional power grab. I am saddened for the people of North Carolina that the Republicans abused their power and chose this destructive path."
At a news conference that ended just before 2 a.m., Democrats and the teachers group called it retribution for attacks against the GOP budget that cut education funding. Those who spoke called the session vindictive and insane.
Republicans said the override would abolish a special provision for a special interest. Speaking to reporters after the session, House Speaker Thom Tillis maintained the legislature was transparent and lawmakers and the public should have known this bill could come before the House, even though it was not noticed.
Leading up to the vote, House lawmakers watched the Orange Bowl college football game on the television screen that normally shows vote tallies, aides distributed talking points about the Energy Jobs Act -- a measure opposed by environmentalists because it would open the door to more offshore energy exploration and advance a contentious natural gas drill process known as fracking. Perdue vetoed the bill last year.
The voter ID measure -- also vetoed by the governor -- would require voters to show identification before casting ballots at the polls. Democrats contend the measure is aimed at infringing the rights of voters aligned with their party and point to a measure in South Carolina that was rejected by the U.S. Justice Department.
Republicans believe the energy bill will create much-needed jobs for the state and argue that the voter ID bill will guarantee fair elections, citing polls showing public support for requiring identification.
But the political shenanigans began Wednesday afternoon when House Speaker Thom Tillis challenged Perdue to officially appoint a replacement for Republican Rep. David Guice, who was given a job in the Department of Corrections. Tillis contended that Guice's replacement, Trudi Walend, was needed to win the override vote on Senate Bill 9, which would essentially repeal the state's Racial Justice Act. Perdue's office said it was waiting for paperwork and made it official as soon as they received it.
In pursuing a midnight session, House Democratic Leader Joe Hackney said Republicans broke a pledge not to consider any legislation other than one bill involving the Racial Justice Act. The deal: Democrats would request the governor go ahead with appointment of Walend if Republicans wouldn't consider other legislation. If the appointment was finalized by 6:30 p.m., the deal was set, Hackney said.
Republicans apparently agreed but later cried foul, suggesting Democrats were trading a seat for a vote (or no votes, in this case). But Hackney rejected such an accusation as "ridiculous." He said Democrats pushed Perdue to make the appointment faster -- she has seven days to finalize the Republicans' appointment. "The governor was asked to act abnormally in that matter," he said.
Walend later cast a decisive vote in the teachers dues bill. N.C. Association of Educators lobbyist Brian Lewis said Brisson, a Dublin Democrat, traded a vote to Republicans on the dues bill for no action on the measure involving the Racial Justice Act. Tillis, the House speaker, rejected the accusation. Brisson could not be reached for comment.
Instead of considering a veto override on the racial bias bill, lawmakers sent it to a committee and appointed a special committee to study racial discrimination in capital cases. Democrats and the members of the committee knew nothing about it, they said. "They have lied to us all the way up and down" about their intentions, said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat.
The override was the only thing on the special session agenda and Democrats cited a constitutional provision that prohibits other action. Republican did some legislative maneuvering.
"To move beyond where we are right now ... is a misuse and abuse of the legislative process," said an angry House Democratic Leader Joe Hackney at an impromptu 8 p.m. press conference.
House leaders suggest a similar move was made in 2007 under Democratic leadership but Democrats said the situation is entirely different. The House Journal from 2007 shows that Gov. Mike Easley called the legislature back twice -- and Democrats didn't unilaterally take the action to extend the session, as Republicans did Wednesday.
As rumors brewed, Republicans refused to answer questions. Aides to Tillis held back and tried to block this reporter from asking questions at one point. Asked if the late-night escapades were as embarrassing as Democrats suggested, Tillis said no.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.