Politics & Government

NC’s epic and brazen legislative shenanigans? They make history, again and again.

The state House’s veto override vote on the state budget Wednesday engendered plenty of shock and disgust from Democrats, but North Carolina’s General Assembly has a long history of brazen political power plays and legislative shenanigans.

Perhaps most famously in 2005, with Democrats in charge, state senators were called back after the legislative session was supposed to have ended, to cast another vote on whether there should be a state lottery. Two Republican opponents — one who was ill and another on his honeymoon — missed the vote, giving supporters a victory.

In 2012, then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican who is now a U.S. senator, overrode a governor’s veto by calling a vote at 1:12 a.m. with five Democrats absent. He wanted to end an automatic deduction of membership dues to the N.C. Association of Educators — a teachers’ advocacy group and a political thorn in his side. He had previously told Republican colleagues in what he thought was a closed caucus meeting — it turned out the room’s microphones were on — that the legislation was political payback.

In 2016, Republican legislative leaders used a lame duck special session to strip power from newly elected Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Their move evoked memories of when Democrats, who controlled both chambers for decades until the mid-1990s, stripped power from two Republican governors and a lieutenant governor shortly after their elections.

Why does it happen here?

North Carolina constitution

Gerry Cohen, who served for more than 30 years as a top legislative staffer, said North Carolina’s state constitution gives state lawmakers wide latitude in how they operate.

“The North Carolina Constitution is very different than most other states, because it basically says nothing about legislative procedure, other than bills have to get votes on second and third readings, and tax and bonds bills have to be on separate days,” said Cohen, who led the legislature’s bill drafting division for three decades. “So, it’s pretty freewheeling for the party in power.”

Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College, said House Speaker Tim Moore pulled off the override Wednesday because North Carolina’s Constitution only calls for a three-fifths majority of those present, not three-fifths of all 120 members in the chamber.

As a result, Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, only needed 42 of the 70 members present to override Cooper’s veto of the budget bill. That was easily reached, with 60 Republicans in the chamber and many Democrats not there.

Moore would have needed 72 votes if three-fifths of the entire membership was required, a more difficult hurdle with only 65 Republicans.

Many other states have a tougher standard for veto overrides by requiring a super-majority of the entire body, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan national organization. Twenty-eight states require at least a three-fifths majority of those elected to override a veto.

North Carolina’s veto rules also do not limit the amount of time legislative leaders have to call an override. As a result, opponents have to be ready for months-long periods to be available for a vote. Ran Coble, president emeritus of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan nonprofit, said that leads to “ambush politics” and hurts effective lawmaking.

“It is held like a Damocles sword over the legislators, and it does several things,” Coble said. “It holds up time that could be spent on other things, and it’s like a threat, which is not a good atmosphere to encourage.”

Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis stands in the back of the House chamber and listens to debate in 2013. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

More legislative tactics

Other tactics legislative leaders have used over the years to shape state law include gutting bills that have passed one chamber and substituting unrelated legislation. That happened last year with a Senate bill about breaking and entering — it turned into a protection for landlords’ eviction fees.

Lawmakers can also stick major policy provisions that are barely connected to spending into the annual budget bill, and add new provisions into compromise bills that emerge from closed-door conferences among House and Senate members.

Such maneuvers sometimes involve corruption. The lottery’s passage eventually exposed that then-House Speaker Jim Black’s unpaid political director had been secretly lobbying for Scientific Games, a lottery operator seeking to get the lucrative contract.

Black placed a public relations expert on the board overseeing the lottery’s setup and operations — a consultant who also had been paid by Scientific Games.

Those upset or impacted by such tactics can try to fight them in the courts, but that’s a difficult path. A lawsuit opponents filed to overturn the lottery’s passage proved unsuccessful. Cooper’s efforts to overturn laws diminishing his power were only partially successful, but the NCAE did succeed in overturning the legislation that would have killed the dues checkoff.

House speaker Tim Moore confers with Rep. David Lewis prior to the afternoon session of the House on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C. Lewis and Moore were both questioned by House democrats about the override vote of the Governor’s veto of the budget during the Wednesday morning session. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The ‘hyperpartisan’ environment

Bitzer doubted a legal challenge to the veto override would be successful because House leaders followed the rules in place.

While legislative hardball is nothing new in North Carolina, Bitzer and Susan Roberts, a Davidson College political science professor, said the hyperpartisan political environment is ramping it up to a higher level.

“This is a stark example of all the statistics and all the surveys that people have been doing about polarization,” Roberts said. “This just says, ‘Here’s polarization in action.’ Not just in terms of politics but in terms of antipathy. You just don’t like the people from the other party.”

Democrats are citing Wednesday’s veto override as evidence that Republicans should be voted out of power in next year’s legislative elections. But that won’t change the rules both parties have used to stymie opposition.

“Electoral accountability is one avenue by which the public can exercise their displeasure,” Bitzer said. “The other — and it requires a much higher hurdle to get over — is writing new rules of the game into the state Constitution.”

That requires adoption by the voters, but only after lawmakers pass legislation to put them on the ballot.

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.