The leadership of North Carolina’s General Assembly spun truly out-of-control in the early morning hours of January 5, 2012. Taking advantage of a special session convened by law, GOP leaders stalled taking action for hours. Exploiting their opponents’ illness, age and family tragedy in order to gain a voting advantage, they adjourned the now-wasted special session and convened a new post-midnight session of the General Assembly for the purpose of overriding the Governor’s veto of a bill written to punish a group that had spoken out against the GOP’s deep cuts to public education.
Noon, January 4
As required by law, Governor Beverly Perdue called legislators into a special session on Wednesday, Jan. 4th to consider her veto of a bill that would have repealed the Racial Justice Act.* This session began at noon. The NC Senate, which is controlled by a solid Republican majority, quickly voted to override the Governor’s veto, but House Republicans had trouble coming up with enough votes to override the veto, so they began to stall… for hours and hours.
7:00 PM, January 4
Around 7:00 PM, House Republicans gave up trying to get enough votes to override the Racial Justice Act veto and sent the bill to committee, signaling their intention not to act on the bill that night. But the House did not adjourn. Instead, lawmakers continued to sit around for hours, many watching the Orange Bowl on monitors in the House Chamber, while House GOP leaders strategized in secret. Something was up.
11:00 PM, January 4
Eventually, as the hours wore on, two House Democrats had to leave for medical reasons. One was very sick; the other 86-years old and exhausted. In addition, Democrat Larry Womble was still in a Winston-Salem hospital in a near-coma following his tragic car accident the first week of December, and another Democrat — Representative Earline Parmon – was coping with the sudden death of her brother and her need to leave the Chambers as soon as possible to return to making his funeral arrangements. Meanwhile, two House Republicans, who were supposed to be absent for the veto override session, had secretly traveled back to Raleigh.
Depending on the actions of a handful of conservative Democrats who had voted with them on many bills, House Republicans now had close to the votes they needed to override any or all of the Governor’s vetoes of their far right bills over the past year. Their situation was helped by a development from earlier in the day: GOP leadership had put pressure on the Governor to appoint a GOP replacement for an open House seat, even though she had several days left before she was required to do so. The Governor respected their request and, after receiving legally required paperwork, she did indeed appoint the new Representative, allowing her to take her seat. Democratic lawmakers had agreed to this “deal” with the understanding that the newly appointed representative would vote only on the Racial Justice Act if appointed that day. They turned out to be wrong.
Midnight, January 5
With the super-majority they needed to override the Governor’s vetoes finally in place, GOP House leaders made their move. Near midnight, both the House and Senate voted to adjourn the special session called to address the Racial Justice Act and then (unconstitutionally) convened a new regular session to begin at 12:45 AM on what was technically the next day (since it was 45 minutes after midnight). They refused to state their agenda in advance, saying it would be “up to the will of the majority” as to what would be addressed later that night, leaving lawmakers from both parties in the dark about what would be on the table once the post-midnight session began.
12:45 AM, January 5
Finally, at 12:45 AM, when the post-midnight session began, members learned that the House would take up the NC Association of Educators dues-check off bill, a proposed law that had been vetoed by Governor Perdue previously on the grounds that it unfairly and arbitrarily targeted a single group of public employees. The bill had been written to stop the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), a trade association of 60,000 teachers and professional educators, from collecting dues automatically via payroll deductions. The House had originally passed this bill by a narrow margin – even though the bill left the right of other public employees to have their professional dues deducted automatically intact. The bill had been widely seen as a political power play, aimed at crippling the ability of NCAE to speak out about the GOP’s cuts to public education and blunting the effectiveness of teachers to advocate for schools, students and their profession.
With two Democrats (Reps. Jim Crawford and Bill Brisson) siding with Republicans, the House completed the veto override shortly after 1 AM, clearing the way for the bill to become law. (Within a day, the bill had landed in court and a temporary stay had been issued to prevent it being enacted. The courts agreed with what hundreds had been telling GOP lawmakers: the way the House overrode the veto of the bill had been unconstitutional. But, by then, NC taxpayers were on the hook for untold thousands in legal fees to defend it.)
1:15 AM, January 5
The House adjourned soon after the vote that targeted teachers.
Within a few days, every major newspaper in the state had printed editorials condemning what House leadership had done. You can review a list of these editorials here, along with links to each editorial. In response to these reactions, the Speaker of the NC House, Republican leader Thom Tillis, said publicly: “We will do it again if we have to.”
What’s wrong with what happened:
It was unconstitutional: The vote to adjourn the Racial Justice Act session and reconvene a General Session at 12:45 AM was unconstitutional under North Carolina law. According to Article III of the state constitution, “at such a reconvened session, the General Assembly may only consider such bills as were returned by the Governor to that reconvened session for reconsideration.”
After the NCAE filed suit the day following the session, a Wake County Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the new law from taking effect. The judge ruled that NCAE has shown a “likelihood of success” on the unconstitutionality of the 12:45 AM session.
There was zero transparency: No agenda for the 12:45 AM session was made public until just before the session began. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were in the dark about what was going on. Speaker Tillis refused to speak to the media at all until after the midnight session was completed. At one point, his staff even physically blocked one statehouse reporter from asking questions.
The legislature is exempt from state open meetings laws, but the unannounced session was a slap in the face to the standard 48-hour public notice. The public — which legislators are supposed to represent — had no opportunity to be heard.
Legality aside, unannounced votes in the middle of the night are not the right way to pass legislation. According to a recent survey, 65% of North Carolina voters said it is “inappropriate” to take votes in the middle of the night.
There was no debate: Debate on whether or not to convene a general session after midnight, including whether it was constitutional to do so, was cut off by House leadership – the 34th time debate had been cut off in less than a year. No other legislature in North Carolina history has come close to such a record of shutting down the right of the opposition to debate.
House GOP leaders acted dishonesty. On multiple occasions, they were caught lying about their intentions:
1) Democrats thought they had a deal that would let Governor Perdue quickly appoint Republican Trudi Walend to an open House seat in exchange for assurances from GOP leadership that the House would not take up any business beyond the Racial Justice Act veto. That promise was broken.
2) NCAE Government Relations Manager Brian Lewis was told on several occasions throughout the day of January 4th that the NCAE dues-check off bill would not come up. That was a lie.
3) Democratic Representative Bill Brisson at one point told NCAE Government Relations Manager Brian Lewis that he had traded his vote on the NCAE dues override in exchange for the Racial Justice Act bill being sent back to committee. NC Speaker House Speaker Thom Tillis denied that accusation.
The GOP targeted teachers purely as political payback: Teachers were singled out by this legislation. Other employee associations, such as the State Employees (SEANC), will still be able to pay professional dues through payroll deductions. And, in the end, the entire ordeal of January 5th was revealed as an attempt to silence the voice of teachers who had been critical of GOP-led cuts to public education — cuts that resulted in rising classroom sizes, less teachers and aids in the classroom, a sharp drop in resources, curtailing of activities, cancellations of classes and even school closings.
NC House Speaker Thom Tillis had admitted they were seeking payback as early as the summer of 2011, when he told a House Republican Caucus meeting as much and then was repeatedly critical of teachers throughout the year, telling the state GOP convention: “[Teachers] don’t care about kids. They don’t care about classrooms. They only care about their jobs and their pensions.”
The strategy used by GOP leaders was immoral: No matter how you look at it, it is wrong to take advantage of one member who is in the hospital in critical-condition and others who had to leave because of illness or family tragedy. And trying to wear members down through marathon sessions and attrition can be dangerous. Just a week after the post-midnight session in North Carolina, the GOP Leader of the New Jersey State Assembly died in the midst of a late night session. Government is not a game and exploiting the physical weakness or tragedies of the opposition is unacceptable behavior in a democracy.
* The Racial justice Act is a North Carolina law passed a few years ago that allows inmates on Death Row to challenge their death sentences using evidence of racial bias. If racial bias is proved in an inmate’s individual case, under this law, the inmate’s sentence can be converted to life in prison with no possibility of parole only. It is not true that inmates successfully appealing using the Act have a chance at ever being released. Conservative lawmakers tried to repeal this law, but Governor Perdue vetoed their repeal bill.