Most committee votes in the General Assembly are voice votes.
The committee chairman calls for “ayes,” then “noes” on a particular piece of legislation or an amendment to a bill. The side with the loudest response typically prevails.
But that’s not always the case. At least a few times every legislative session, a committee chairman makes a call on a voice vote that baffles even the most cynical of observers. That happened recently.
A state House committee debated a bill – sponsored by Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican – to eliminate the protest petition from state law. The change would give residents less of a voice in proposed developments next to their properties. Under current law, if enough owners of properties bordering a proposed rezoning sign a protest petition, it requires a three-fourths vote of a city council to approve the zoning change. Opponents of protest petitions say they give neighbors too much sway over what property owners can do with their land. Both sides have solid arguments.
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In the committee, Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, proposed what he considered a “compromise amendment” to Stam’s bill. Instead of eliminating the protest petition process, which has been part of law for nearly a century, the amendment would have required a greater percentage of neighboring property owners to get a protest petition and then require a two-thirds, rather than three-fourths, vote of council to approve a zoning change.
In opposing the amendment, Stam said there should be a “really, really good reason to require something other than a majority vote” in a democracy. He mentioned constitutional amendments, for example, because they affect people’s fundamental rights.
Then came the voice vote on Luebke’s amendment. It was clear to me and others seated around me that the “aye” votes were louder and came from more legislators than the “noes.” I’ve listened to a recording of the vote numerous times. It’s clear.
But Rep. Carl Ford, a China Grove Republican and the committee chairman, ruled that the amendment failed. Luebke disagreed and asked for a show of hands, but Ford wouldn’t allow it.
Asked after the vote, Ford said he heard an “almost equal sound” from either side. “It’s at the discretion of the chair because of what I heard in the discussion,” he added. He also said Luebke can propose the same amendment when the bill gets to the House floor.
In other words, a committee chairman ruled against a clear majority on a controversial bill that, if ultimately passed, would take rights away from people trying to protect their land from developments that could harm their property values or the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the bill sponsor argued that it is against the definition of democracy to require three-fourths votes of city councils on controversial rezonings or just about anything else.
But apparently it’s OK to overrule a majority to make that happen.
Where’s the democracy in that?
Patrick Gannon writes about state government and politics.