The “veto” used to be a powerful weapon in the Governor’s arsenal, but recently it has not been an effective one for North Carolina’s chief executives. With veto-proof super majorities in both houses of the legislature, the General Assembly now regularly overrides gubernatorial vetoes – sometimes with ease and sometimes only after “gaming the system”.
Last week’s veto override of Senate Bill 2 in the House – a bill which allows magistrates and registrars to “opt out” of performing any marriages if they object to performing same-sex marriages due to a religious objection - definitely falls into the latter category.
Before getting into the details of how the House override occurred, here is a little history on the recent demise of the veto’s power.
Over the last ten sessions of the NCGA there have been 34 gubernatorial vetoes issued. Sixteen of those vetoes have been overridden. Fifteen of the sixteen overrides have occurred since the Republicans took over both houses of the legislature after the 2010 elections. Eleven of the fifteen Republican-led overrides were against Democrat Beverly Perdue. However, maybe more surprising is that four out of five vetoes from Republican Governor Pat McCrory have also been overridden by the heavily Republican legislature.
This recent history shows where the real power lies in Raleigh. It’s in the General Assembly, not the Governor’s mansion. But even with all that power, sometimes the leadership in the legislature has to work at it to achieve the 3/5ths vote, or 60% super majority, in each chamber to snub the Governor.
So, what does all this have to do with local politics?
Well, it just so happens that all three local legislators, Senator Jeff Tarte, and Representatives Charles Jeter and John Bradford all supported the Governor’s opposition to this bill. All three voted against its initial passage, and Senator Tarte was one of only three Republican Senators to vote against the override in the Senate..
The Senate override however was the easy part. That vote was 32-16 in favor – easily surpassing the 60% mark of the members present. Two of the total 50 senators were absent for that vote.
One would think absent voters would not matter, but in the subsequent NC House vote they would be necessary to ensure a successful override attempt.
In the House override vote last Thursday, 10 members were not present – four Democrats and six Republicans. That dropped the total number of “yes” votes required to 66. Those favoring overriding the governor had 69 votes in their pocket, so a vote was called and the bill was overridden.
As soon as the vote occurred Thursday morning, attention turned to those who were absent which allowed for the smaller number of votes required. That attention – particularly on the political left - quickly focused on the three Republicans who voted against the original bill but who were not on hand last Thursday to vote against the override. Two of those three Republicans were local Reps Charles Jeter and John Bradford.
The questions being asked in cyberspace implied the Republican no-shows deliberately sandbagged the vote by not showing up and thus allowed the override to succeed. The implication was that they had not stood by their original votes. After all, last Thursday was the first excused absence this legislative session for each of them. It seemed suspicious.
Unfortunately for those critics, the math doesn't support their position.
Everything else being equal, even if Jeter, Bradford and fellow Republican Rep Jon Hardister who all voted against the original bill had been on hand last Thursday, the override would have still been successful. Or put another way, their absence did not cause it to pass.
Rep Jeter was out with a stomach bug. He says he would have been there, but knew his vote would not have altered the outcome. Rep Bradford knew new was going to be out that day and let the Governor know in advance that his opposition to the bill had not changed.
But what about the other absent members?
There were also four Democrats and three other Republicans not present last Thursday. After analyzing their previous votes, it appears this override likely would have occurred even if the full House membership had been present. If all of the other absent members had been present and voted the same way they did when the bill passed originally, the vote would have been 72 – 48 – or exactly 60%.
That however might have been too close for comfort for those wanting the override to succeed, so they waited until the odds were in their favor. In doing so, they gave a lesson in power-politics and dealt another blow to the power of the veto.