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Raleigh, N.C. — This wasn‘t the first time shenanigans dominated a day at the North Carolina statehouse.
Far from it.
But for some, Gov. Roy Cooper‘s $24 billion state budget veto set a new bar. Cooper called it the Republican majority‘s “most deceptive stunt yet” and said they “waged an assault on our democracy.”
, switching microphones as they were shut off on her. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a House speaker himself when Democrats were in charge, said the morning‘s events “defied logic.”
But for some people, it was just kind of an interesting Wednesday. The new variety of medicine others have swallowed in the past.
“It‘s happened,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, a 10-term House member. “Not identical. This type of thing used to be the norm. … We‘ve had people cry.”
Those who looked for the closest comparison invariably pointed to 2005, when Democratic leaders in the Senate pushed the state lottery through while one Republican was ill and another was away on his honeymoon.
As with Wednesday, leadership seized an opportunity, calling for the vote when the numbers favored their side.
“Democrats used the rules to their advantage when they were in the majority, so it’s a bipartisan strategy,” Catawba College politics professor Michael Bitzer said.
“Not unprecedented,” Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said. “It is more a question of degree.”
Degree and detail. This wasn‘t a couple of absent senators. This was more representatives off the floor for a vote than any time since at least 2010, which is as far back as a nationwide service called Legisan tracks. All but about 15 Democrats were off the floor Wednedsay, unaware that the biggest vote of the legislative session would come and go in moments.
They‘d been told it was safe to stay away after two months of making sure they were on hand to block just this sort of maneuver. House Rules Chairman David Lewis told House Minority Leader Darren Jackson something on Tuesday. The two men disagree just what was said, but no one called anyone a liar, leaving the possibility that this thing turned on a misunderstood conversation.
“Either there was a gross misinterpretation by Lewis and/or Jackson, or something is amiss here,” Bitzer said in a text. “But it doesn’t engender the opportunity for working across the aisle, needless to say.”
Lewis, R-Harnett, also told WRAL News on Tuesday that there wouldn‘t be any votes at the 8:30 a.m. session, but that proved less than binding.
Former Gov. Mike Easley addressed comparisons to 2005 later in the day.
“We made certain every member knew when the [lottery] vote was scheduled, and both parties had an opportunity to get their senators there to vote,” Easley said.
Back then, senators could “pair” their votes, a proxy system that allowed them to vote without attending.
Former Rep. John Blust used to rail against shady process at the legislature, speechifying against Democratic tactics of the past that his own Republican leadership soon adopted. The Greensboro Republican who retired from the House last year after 18 years sat through more than a few late-night sessions and watched, disappointed, as bills were pasted wholesale into unrelated legislation just to push them through.
Blust said Wednesday‘s vote reminded him of a redistricting plan that rode the calendar for months back in 2001. One day, Democrats “found they had a majority, and they quickly took a vote,” he said.
“So it‘s happened,” Blust said. “I don‘t want to say it‘s fair game. I don‘t want to say it‘s usual. It‘s been known to be done this way.”