The tactics used last week by state House Republican leadership to override two high-profile vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper may have been within legislative boundaries.
But holding a vote when the bulk of Democratic leaders were not present may have done lasting damage to the legislative process, according to ethics experts and political analysts.
The House voted 55-15 along party lines to override the veto with 40 Democrats not present, many in a redistricting caucus meeting.
Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, and Minority leader, said he had been informed by Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, that there would be no votes taken in Wednesday’s morning session. Following Tuesday’s House floor session, Lewis texted a WRAL reporter “no votes 8:30” when asked about Wednesday’s session agenda.
“I know that (Rep Jackson’s) trust in me has been shaken, but I did not have the authority to conduct no votes,” Lewis said during Wednesday afternoon’s floor session when all members at the legislature were present.
There are 65 Republicans and 55 Democrats in the House. At full attendance, the GOP would have needed at least seven Democratic votes for a successful override.
“I do not see how trust will be regained any time soon,” said Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.
“All bets are off now, and the problem is that bipartisanship will not likely be able to return, which means we could be faced with a completely dysfunctional government in our state for some time to come.”
Madjd-Sadjadi referred to the House GOP leadership’s strategy “as effectively the nuclear option that neither side was willing to try before.”
“From now on, the Democrats will be on guard for it and they will no longer be willing to compromise on anything.”
Conducting a veto override vote with so many Democratic members absent serves “to disenfranchise the electorate,” said Darryl Scriven, dean of Winston-Salem State University’s College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education. He also served as associate director of education and director of the Bioethics Honors program at Tuskegee University.
“If their legislators are not in the room, especially on something as important as the state budget, it means (their constituents) were not represented in the veto vote regardless of how House leadership portrayed the circumstances around the vote,” Scriven said.
“It says something is clearly broken in the legislature for that kind of vote to occur.”
Scriven said the House GOP leadership’s veto override tactics strikes of subterfuge even if there was an honest miscommunication by Lewis to Jackson about whether votes would be taken during the Wednesday morning session.
“I believe it is important for these veto votes to be interrogated for what was understood and not understood to be on the agenda that day,” Scriven said.
Wednesday represented the 38th consecutive session in which the state budget veto was on the calendar. House GOP leadership did not call for a veto override vote when there were between 108 and 120 members present during voting sessions.
House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, repeatedly suspended House floor rules to not take up bills in the order in which they appeared on the agenda — the veto override was at or near the top in each session.
Moore has been unapologetic about how the override votes were conducted.
“I’ve made it clear. I’ve said it from right here, on the floor, everywhere: If I see an opportunity to override this budget, this veto, I was gonna take that vote,” Moore said.
“If they didn’t want it to pass, all they have to do is show up for work.”
Jackson has questioned how House GOP leadership planned to hold such critical veto override votes at 8:30 a.m. if most Democrats were in attendance, particularly when a House Finance committee meeting was set for 9 a.m. to address two mini-budget bills that were GOP priorities.
Scriven said the House GOP leadership tactics on the veto override votes could damage public confidence in the legislature’s ability to “handle the process in a civil and proper way.”
“One foundation of public ethics is to avoid (actions) that seem to undermine consensus or betray the process of deliberation,” Scriven said.
“It is certainly possible to create a narrative, however plausible it may be, why this vote happened the way that it did.
“But there was an opportunity to recall the veto override votes with the full membership there if the House leadership felt it had the necessary votes for the overrides when all members were present,” Scriven said.
Jackson submitted motions to recall both veto override votes during the Wednesday afternoon session.
“All we’re asking is that we do things a proper way so we don’t have probably the most toxic work environment that we’ve had, for the next two months we’re working together,” said Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham.
The motions were voted down 61-54 along party lines.
During the Wednesday afternoon session, Moore insisted repeatedly he is consistent when it comes to keeping his word concerning declared non-voting sessions.
However, several Democratic members made a point to question Moore as to whether his word could be situational, including if he could declare a non-voting session and then make a procedural call to allow votes after all.
Lewis answered by saying if House Republican leadership were to consider that tactic, they could have done it Tuesday during a declared non-voting session when most Democrats also were absent from the floor.
Scriven said the damage to legislative trust could play a role in thwarting the House’s ability to compromise on its 2020 redistricting map.
“As important as passing a state budget is, there is a higher hierarchy of trust required to pass redistricting maps because that can produce more of a winner-take-all mentality,” Scriven said.
“Establishing fair and proper district boundaries is challenging enough in the best of times because each side naturally wants political gain.
“With the level of trust strained as it is in the House, reaching compromise will take a lot of willpower and goodwill.”
John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and a national expert on state legislatures, said he “expects emotions are understandably raw on the Democratic side of the aisle in light of the way the veto override went down.”
“It is certainly an unexpected outcome to the budget standoff, assuming that the Senate, as is generally expected, will succeed in a veto override vote in coming days, given that Senate Republicans have always been much closer than their House counterparts to having the votes for an override.”
Dinan said that with the House veto override standoff in place primarily due to Cooper’s insistence on some form of Medicaid expansion in the state budget, “the more it began to look as if the standoff could last for several more months and without any resolution in sight.”
“In that context, there are probably a fair amount of Democrats and certainly a lot of Republicans who are glad that the budget impasse is over (in the House).”
Dinan said that “it had to be wearing on Democratic legislators in particular to be sure to show up every day in recent months for the purpose of preventing an override of the sort that occurred this week.
“So this means of resolving the issue, while unexpected and out of the ordinary, does appear poised to signal the beginning of the end to the session, once redistricting matters are addressed, in a situation where it is not clear that there were any other viable prospects for a resolution.”
However, Dinan said the House veto override tactic deprived the chamber of the chance “to see if such a (budget) compromise could have been reached on other issues.”
“Such as in a way that might have been good training and practice for legislative-gubernatorial negotiations that will have to pick up again next summer for the budget adjustment.”