As you may have heard by now, there was a rather maddening side story to the veto override votes that took place during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day at the North Carolina General Assembly. As commentator Thomas Mills rightfully pointed out last week on the website Politics NC, had all Democratic members of the House showed up, it’s quite possible that Governor Cooper’s vetoes of two badly flawed bills (or at least one of them, anyway) could have been sustained.
Here’s what happened: In mid-December during its latest seemingly endless lame duck session, the General Assembly passed two bills – House Bill 1029 and Senate Bill 469 – and sent them to Gov. Cooper. Though both included non-controversial provisions, both also made extremely problematic changes to state law. HB 1029 was the measure that, in returning state elections and ethics oversight to a constitutional model, also included a new provision that will bring a shroud of secrecy to board of elections investigations. SB 469 – a measure that was supposed to be a “technical corrections” measure – included, among other things, two provisions that will abet the resegregation of our public schools by facilitating the establishment of so-called “municipal charter schools” and making it easier for some families to obtain private school vouchers.
Though he was clearly frustrated by taking such action, given the useful provisions that both bills included, Gov. Cooper ultimately opted to veto the bills on Friday, December 21. After Christmas and before the calendar brought the 2017-18 General Assembly to a close, legislative leaders brought the House and Senate back into session and held veto override votes on December 27.
Now, here’s where things get a little interesting. The override vote on the election secrecy bill ended up passing by a vote of 68 “yes,” 40 “no,” 3 “not voting” and 9 “excused absences.” It takes three-fifths or 60% of those present and voting to override a veto. In this case, the veto was overridden with 62.9%. In the final vote tally, only one Democrat – the disgraced Duane Hall, who vented his spleen by voting with Republicans multiple times in 2018 – voted “yes.” Three Republicans (Representatives John Blust, Larry Pittman and Michael Speciale) voted “no.”
Meanwhile, six Democrats were among the absent and another simply did not vote. If six of these seven individuals had managed to be in the House chamber and vote “no,” the motion to override would have only garnered 59.6% (68 out of 114) and failed. One member given an “excused absence” on HB 1029, somehow managed to arrive in the chamber and vote on HB 469, just 34 minutes later.
Now, it needs to be acknowledged that things might have been different had all of these members showed up and voted. Maybe Republican pressure would have forced a vote change by one of the three GOP “noes.” Maybe one of the three absent Republicans would have showed up. What’s more, the vote margin on the “technical corrections” bill was slightly larger – 70-40. A turnaround there would have been tougher.
All that said, it must also be pointed out that the failure of Democrats to push and contest these bills right up until the end constituted an enormous political failure. As Mills rightfully observed, even forcing the wavering Republicans to vote for and pass a measure that they were queasy about would have been good, tough and pragmatic politics.
More to the point, showing up to vote for what was right was what their constituents elected them to do. Here’s Mills again:
If legislators don’t want to be inconvenienced around holidays and other times, they shouldn’t run. There are plenty of people who would gladly take on the responsibility to push back against Republican overreach at any cost. The voters and the people who just put their hard earned time and money into electing Democrats deserve better.”
Of course, in 2019, with the demise of the Republican supermajorities, the expectation is that veto override votes of this kind will be a thing of the past. Let’s hope that’s the case.
If North Carolina Republican leaders have shown us anything over the last eight years, however, it is that they play hardball at all times. These are, after all, the same “ends-justify-the-means” politicians who have repeatedly shut off debate, crafted the most important pieces of legislation in secret, convened repeated and poorly-noticed special sessions, passed a state budget without allowing amendments and stood arm-in-arm with the nation’s preeminent serial liar, Donald Trump.
To think that they won’t continue to look for every possible opportunity even plausibly within the ambit of the rules to keep advancing their ideologically-driven agenda in 2019 is naïveté of the highest order.
In other words, North Carolina Democrats may have made significant progress in the 2018 election, but that’s yesterday’s news. The battle of 2019 is underway and Job #1 should be showing up for work every day.