RALEIGH — House Speaker Thom Tillis put Democrats on notice last year that he would spring a veto override whenever he had the votes to succeed. On Thursday, he pulled off his eighth override, undoing the governor’s veto of a bill that would allow community colleges to opt out of a federal loan program.
It was a low-profile piece of legislation made more significant by the fact that the House waited for more than a year to attempt the override. That delay prompted House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, to protest the vote as unconstitutional.
A lawsuit pending in Wake County Superior Court, challenging the General Assembly’s override of a vetoed bill that took away automatic dues paid to the state teachers association, contends lawmakers must act promptly after a bill is vetoed. The state constitution says legislators must “proceed to reconsider” without defining how long that is.
“Clearly the time for this veto override has passed, and any action you take today will be ineffectual,” Hackney said on the House floor. “The same goes for any of the others, quote unquote, parked here.”
House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex, responded that the Legislature could take as long as it wants during a single session. The current session began last year and is expected to conclude this month.
Tillis parked five bills in what he dubbed the “veto garage,” and most of them have been there for about a year. But on Thursday the House cleared the veto garage of all but one controversial bill: the one requiring voter identification.
Two of the vetoed bills were removed from the calendar and sent to perish in a committee because newer legislation made them obsolete: One was the bill repealing the Racial Justice Act, and the other was an energy bill that promoted drilling for natural gas. A lesser-known fifth bill, which would have prohibited the state from fining some poor counties for water-quality violations, was vetoed over a narrow issue that has since been resolved without the need for an override vote.
The veto garage concept is new and untested in North Carolina, brought about with the GOP takeover of the General Assembly last year squaring off against a Democratic governor who vetoed 16 bills.
Thursday’s override vote of 71-46 was enough to make the required margin of three-fifths of those present. It was accomplished with three conservative Democrats voting with Republicans.
It now goes to the Senate, which has scheduled a vote for Monday night. The Senate passed the bill in April 2011 by a 31-18 vote. Thirty votes are needed for an override if all members are present.
Gov. Bev Perdue issued a double-barreled statement after Thursday’s vote on the community college bill and the adoption of a budget that she says harms education.
“Today the Republican-led General Assembly secured their place as the most anti-public education legislature in North Carolina history,” Perdue said. “… Now the Republican legislature has closed a path to career training or college for potentially thousands of students.”
Tillis’ office released a statement praising the bipartisan support for the bill, which he noted some community college administrators had requested. It allows them not to participate in a federal student loan program for low-income students, which the bill’s sponsors say has endangered federal funding because of a high rate of default in some colleges.
“It’s a good day for community colleges, who now have more control over their financial aid systems,” Tillis said.
But there was plenty of partisan disagreement over the bill, which turned testy when Democrats again complained that the Republican leadership was cutting off debate.
When Tillis announced that the discussion would end and a vote would be taken shortly after noon, Rep. Ray Rapp, a Democrat from Mars Hill who is a college administrator, objected. Rapp said the GOP cut off debate on three bills Wednesday, bringing the total for this session to 38 times contrasted with only seven times in four years when Hackney was the speaker of the House.
That prompted Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Greensboro, to ask Rapp if he could estimate how long he had already debated the bill on the floor this year and last.
“No, I cannot,” Rapp replied. “But I’ve listened to you for 10 years, and I haven’t stood on this floor and spoken as often as you have.”