Politics & Government

55 seconds to act: Did Democrats respond correctly to the Republican veto override?

There’s a viral video of a North Carolina Democrat in the state legislature shouting on the N.C. House floor in hopes of stopping a controversial budget vote.

“I will not yield!” Rep. Deb Butler bellowed to House Speaker Tim Moore on Sept. 11.

Republicans had called a vote on their proposed state budget, which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had vetoed. Moore, a Republican, noticed that many Democrats were absent that morning, so he took steps to override Cooper only five minutes after the session started.

For Republicans, it was a chance to revive a bill they’d spent two months this spring trying to pass.

For Democrats who had sustained Cooper’s veto for two months this summer, reality hit them like a linebacker. Republicans got control of the ball in position to score, and all Democrats could do was cry foul.

The vote happened anyway, with Republicans prevailing. In the heated aftermath, with video of Butler’s speech drawing attention online, there were suggestions that Democrats could have prevented the defeat if they had only left the floor, leaving the House without a quorum.

Could Democrats have walked out and prevented an override?

House Principal Clerk James White, a nonpartisan legislative staffer who’s in charge of record-keeping, didn’t want to comment on hypothetical situations. But he referred the News & Observer to Article II, Section 11 (1), of the North Carolina Constitution.

“Neither house shall proceed upon public business unless a majority of all of its members are actually present,” White said in an email. “In order for the public acts of the House to be valid, 61 members must be present.”

It remains unclear how a court — if asked to intervene — might interpret the word “proceed.” Does it mean when a bill is brought to the floor? When it’s debated? When voting starts?

Experts who spoke with the N&O believe that House Democrats could have thrown the override into legal trouble if they had walked out before the vote.

“They would have had to leave before the vote,” said Gerry Cohen, a former legislative special counsel who now serves on the Wake County elections board.

While Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson, the House minority leader, said he’s unsure about the effectiveness of a walkout, Speaker Tim Moore’s office offered the same assessment as Cohen.

“Yes, this would have avoided the veto override vote,” Moore spokesman Joseph Kyzer said when asked about the walkout theory.

The problem for Democrats: They had only 55 seconds to make that decision.

55 seconds to act

Fifty-five seconds. That’s how much time passed between a House member’s motion to consider the veto override (when Democrats first became aware of the GOP effort) and when Moore called for the vote.

“My understanding is that the speaker immediately had the vote and allowed no debate, which would have allowed members to leave,” Cohen told the N&O. Not only were Democrats surprised by the motion, they “likely had no knowledge exactly how many people were there,” Cohen said, and thus didn’t know a walkout might work.

Many Democrats, including Jackson and other senior party members, were absent from the floor Wednesday morning because they didn’t expect a vote. Jackson claims Rep. David Lewis, a high-ranking Republican, told him there would be no votes that morning — which Lewis denies.

Despite the absences, there were more than 61 lawmakers on the floor, which constitutes a quorum. (House members are considered present when they step on the House floor, regardless of whether or not they are sitting at their desk or voting.)

The session started the way it typically does: with a Christian prayer and the pledge of allegiance. The House then approved the previous day’s journal. That all took about 5 minutes.

Then Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican from Lincoln County, motioned to vote on the budget veto override.

A fast vote

In audio of Wednesday morning’s session, available on the legislature’s website, legislators statements indicate Saine’s motion caught Democrats off-guard. Here’s how it happened:

At the 5:10 mark of the audio, Saine makes his motion. A woman can be heard saying “What?”

At the 5:19 mark: Moore tells the clerk to read the bill. Democrats then scramble to find microphones and object to the motion.

At the 5:33 mark: As Democrats are objecting, Moore asks if there’s “further discussion, further debate?”

Democrats shout to Moore that they were told there would be no votes during the morning session. But at the 5:45 mark, Moore responds “That was not announced..”

At 6:05 on the audio, with Democrats yelling at Moore, he instructs the clerk to open the vote.

“This is a travesty of the process and you know it,” Butler shouted.

At the 6:21 mark, Moore tells the clerk to “lock the machine” — preventing more voting — and to count the vote.

Three minutes later, Moore reads the results as Democrats shout over him.

Other rules

If Democrats had tried to walk off the floor, Republicans could have called for a quorum count under House Rules. If that happened, the legislature’s sergeants-at-arms would likely close the doors to the chamber so Democrats couldn’t leave.

If Democrats forced their way out, House rules allow members to “compel the attendances of absent members” and have members “taken into custody” if they were absent without an excuse.

“To our knowledge this has never been done,” Kyzer said.

The N&O asked Butler whether she thinks the Democrats could’ve prevented the override with a walkout.

“If these fellas were rule-followers, that might be an option,” Butler said. “But they have suspended the rules 100 times since I’ve been here.

“It wouldn’t work.”

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Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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