RALEIGH — Republicans ended their historic session on Monday with a triple play of veto overrides, rejecting Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue on natural gas exploration, capital punishment and the budget.
In a drama that played out from the early afternoon late into the night, the General Assembly mustered the votes to bring a decisive conclusion to their agenda, with considerable behind-the-scenes muscling to make it happen.
But at least one of the successful override votes on the natural gas exploration, or fracking, bill was the result of an error by a Democratic lawmaker who pushed the wrong button, and a GOP maneuver prevented her from changing it and gave them a one-vote margin of victory.
Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, pushed the wrong button and a GOP maneuver by Wake County Rep. Paul Skip Stam prevented her from changing it, giving the GOP a one-vote margin of victory.
It was a huge mistake, Carney said afterward. I take full responsibility.
Democrats denounced Stams quick parliamentary maneuver as a dirty trick that resulted in the passage of a landmark energy overhaul that could create a natural gas production industry in the state.
I am shocked and profoundly disappointed, said Guilford County Democrat Pricey Harrison. First the Speaker cut off debate, which is unfortunate with such an important piece of legislation with serious implications for North Carolina. Then to pass the override by accident and to clinch it with a procedural move is grossly unfair. We have two seriously ill Democratic members and two others with dying parents who have stuck around to help fight these vetoes.
Democrats came to Carneys desk to console the legislator, who wept after she realized her mistake.
They really did not have the votes to pass it, Harrison said of the Republican veto override effort. The atmosphere is toxic right now.
The final hours of the session amplified the energy of the conservative takeover of the General Assembly that began with the arrival of a Republican majority in both chambers in 2011 for the first time in more than 140 years. Their clash with the governor produced 19 vetoes and so far 11 overrides.
On Monday night intense deal-making went on in the House, where a handful of Democrats were wooed before the finishing touches were put on a bill making late additions to the budget, potentially offering benefits to their districts.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County, said during an evening recess some members of her party were concerned because they are vulnerable in upcoming elections.
Theres been a lot more wheeling and dealing from our caucus members than I would have anticipated, she said.
The day saw odd alliances of political foes crossing party lines, including a Wake County Democrat and a Guilford County Democrat joining House Republicans on the budget vote.
Earlier, the gang of five conservative Democrats in the House joined forces with the GOP to once again to thwart the governor and their own party. It took all five of them to override the rewrite of the Racial Justice Act in order to counter the defection of Republican Rep. Glen Bradley of Youngsville, who occasionally finds himself at odds with the GOP caucus and voted not to override.
The day also saw Lt. Gov. Walter Daltons unexpected break with the governor just before the Senate took up the natural gas drilling bill. The Democratic candidate for governor announced that he disagreed with Perdues veto on Sunday.
Dalton, in an interview, said he had concerns about groundwater safety but he was relying on state environmental officials who said it could be done safety.
He said he was reassured because the legislature would still have to give final approval to begin fracking.
Republican lawmakers worked into the night trying to round up enough votes to override Gov. Bev Perdues veto of the fracking legislation. Finally, at about 11 p.m., the House called for a vote, which just reached the three-fifths majority needed, 72-47.
But Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat from Charlotte, could be heard on the House audio system saying she was trying to change her vote, having hit the wrong button. House Majority Leader Paul Skip Stam of Apex cut her off with a legislative procedure to prevent changing votes.
The bill was expected to live or die on a razor-thin margin, possibly hanging on a single vote. The legislation is regarded by Republicans as a landmark legislation that would reshape the states energy landscape by clearing the way to the creation of a natural gas production industry.
Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a McDowell County Republican, said that as of 9:30 p.m. Republicans were several votes short but he expected that straggling Democrats could be convinced to vote against Perdues veto. Republicans had spent much of the day courting, cajoling and hectoring undecided Democrats to switch sides and join the Republicans.
Harrison said the Republicans had needed at least six Democrats to switch sides.
Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Guilford Democrat, said he was one of the Democrats targeted by the anti-veto drive because even though he voted against the fracking bill on June 21, he thought it was a good piece of legislation.
Thats why they were working with me, said Brandon, adding that he was inclined to stick with the governor.
Budget veto override
The legislature passed its $20.2 billion state budget over Perdues objections, with the state House voting 74-45 Monday night to override her veto. The Senate followed, voting 31-10 to override.
This is the second time in two years that the Republican-controlled legislature has handed Perdue a budget defeat with the help of a handful of House Democrats.
Perdue tried to use her veto to push Republican legislators to the negotiating table. In the last week, she proposed shifting $100 million legislative budget writers had set aside in reserves or using cash she described as surprise revenue to go to schools, parole offices, eugenics victims, and to prepare for the November elections.
Republicans could have negotiated with Perdue, made sure they had enough House Democrats to do what they wanted without her approval, or left with the budget they passed last year in place. In the end, they convinced enough Democrats to join them in a veto.
Im not crazy about (the budget) ... we think the modifications weve made improve it, but if shes not liking those modifications and were not able to override, we have a budget for the second year, said Senate leader Phil Berger.
Perdue tried to convince five of the six House Democrats who had been voting for the Republican budget to stick with her. But it was Democratic Reps. Darren Jackson of Wake County and Marcus Brandon of High Point who made surprise breaks.
Jackson said he was worried the Senate would go home without negotiating, and that state employees in his district would be laid off from their jobs.
The legislature writes a two-year budget when it convenes in odd-numbered years. In even-numbered years, it returns to Raleigh to update the plan for the second year.
The budget leaves local school districts in worse shape than Perdue wanted, but they are assured that their budget cuts wont be as deep as they would have been under the unchanged version of the two-year budget.
Schools and raises
The budget allows school districts to keep more of their state funds rather than returning them to the state treasury, but school districts will still have $190 million less to spend this year.
Teachers and state employees will receive 1.2 percent raises.
The state Senate was intent on ending the session before dawn Tuesday, and the threat they would leave hung over House Democrats.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, called the Senate bullies.
The bully speaks and the other body acts in fear, Glazier said. What a horrible precedent we set.
Democrats voting for the budget were Reps. Jackson, Brandon, William Brisson of Bladen County, Jim Crawford of Granville, Dewey Hill of Brunswick and Marian McLawhorn of Pitt. Rep. Susi Hamilton of New Hanover did not vote.
RJA veto override
The override votes began about 1 p.m., when the Senate voted 31-11 to knock down the governors veto of the revamped Racial Justice Act. About an hour and a half later, the House followed suit with a 72-48 split.
The Senate vote was along party lines, but in the House five conservative Democrats swung the deal, resisting a last-minute campaign by death penalty opponents to stick with the governor. They were Brisson of Bladen County, Crawford, Hill; Rep. Bill Owens of Camden; and Rep. Timothy L. Spear of Washington.
Before the Senate vote, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said there would be a legal challenge if the veto was overturned.
Its a shameful day in a Southern legislature that ultra-conservative Republicans assisted by a few Democrats would lead North Carolina backwards rather than forward, Barber said.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington, on the Senate floor answered Racial Justice Act supporters call to trust judges deciding those claims. He said he trusted the judges, juries and lawyers.
Who I dont trust are statisticians people who come in after the fact, he said. People who get cold-blooded, deliberate murderers off their death penalties.
The bill was the second attempt by Republicans and the states prosecutors to undo the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to petition to reduce their sentences to life without parole by using statistical proof of racial bias in their prosecution, sentencing or jury selection.
Last year the General Assembly passed a bill that would have gutted the Racial Justice Act, but the governor vetoed it. The Senate overrode the veto but the House didnt have to votes to try.
Staff writers Austin Baird and John Frank contributed.