Members of the North Carolina General Assembly headed back to work this week after taking a few days off following the Labor Day holiday. Many were in for a week of long nights, early mornings, and votes no one saw coming. North Carolina politics made national news more than once this week. All eyes were on the special election held Tuesday for the U.S. House of Representatives District 9 seat that has been vacant since 2018 after a ballot fraud scandal tainted the results of the first election. Rep. Deb Butler (D-Brunswick) captured the national news spotlight Wednesday morning after a video of her on the House floor went viral. Rep. Butler was speaking out against the vote held to override the Governor's veto of this year's budget bill that has been steadfastly opposed by Democrats. The week ended in wrapping up redistricting committee work and preparing for another long week ahead for this 2019 session.
The saga that has been the North Carolina budget for the 2019-2020 biennium took a surprise plot twist on Wednesday as House Republican leadership managed to override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper's veto of the budget bill, HB 966: 2019 Appropriations Act, with a vote of 55 - 9. Consideration of the budget veto has been on the House's session calendar every day since Gov. Cooper issued the veto back in late June. Since then, a new fiscal year has begun and programs around the state have taken action to prepare for the possibility of having to conduct business without a state budget this year.
Democrats believed that Wednesday morning's session was to be a no-vote session, only a formality, to recess and return for votes later in the afternoon - a common practice for both the House and the Senate so that work can begin earlier in the day while still complying with all of the chamber rules. Just enough Republicans were in their seats at the start of the 8:30AM session, presenting the opportunity for Speaker of the House Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) to hold the vote to override the budget veto. 55 Republicans were on the floor at the time of the vote along with 12 Democrats, giving the body just over the 60 members needed for a quorum that is required for any votes to be taken.
Fireworks erupted following the motion by Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) for the override vote to be taken as Democrats saw the move as a deceitful way of conducting business. During this same morning session, while the numbers were there, Republicans voted to override the veto of HB 555: Medicaid Transformation Implementation, which would provide the funding needed to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to begin the implementation of Medicaid Transformation, moving from a fee-for-service model to a managed care system. This comes a week after DHHS announced that the first phase of the roll out, originally scheduled to take place in November, would be delayed until next year as a result of budget delays.
The rest of the day Wednesday was full of press conferences by both Republicans and Democrats trying to explain their side of the story. Democrats have cited text messages and personal conversations with Republican leadership indicating that there would be no votes at the 8:30AM session, arguing that the caucus was lied to in order for the vote to be held. Republicans say that they never lied to their colleagues across the aisle, that, with the information they had at the time, anything said was believed to be factual. Speaker Moore made it clear during his press conference that he saw the opportunity to hold the vote and that it was his decision alone to call it at that time, something he has said would be his plan from the very beginning. He also pointed out that he did not explicitly state to members that there would be no votes taken Wednesday morning, that it is members' responsibility to show up and be present each time the House is in session.
Later Wednesday afternoon, Democrats motioned to recall the bills and bring them back before the body for another vote. The motion failed along party lines. The Senate did not take up the veto override while they were in session throughout the end of the week. The Senate will still need to vote to override the Governor's veto of both the budget bill and the Medicaid transformation appropriation. It is unclear if Senate Republicans will be able to collect the votes needed to do so. If and when the Senate votes to override the vetoes on both of the bills, they will immediately become law.
On Tuesday, voters in and around the Charlotte area made their way to the polls to cast their ballots for mayor, city council members, and two U.S. House seats. Current City of Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles swept the mayoral election, capturing over 86% of the vote. Mayor Vi Lyles was not the only candidate to overwhelmingly win their respective races. Voters had seven candidates to choose from for the four at-large city council seats. Voters chose Braxton David Winston II, James (Smuggie) Mitchell, Dimple Ajmera, and Julie Eiselt for those seats, each capturing 19.37%, 16.99%, 15.89%, and 15.86% of the vote respectively. Larken Egleston won with 72.99% of the vote for the District 1 city council seat. District 2 went to Malcolm Graham with 61.31% of the vote. The District 3 race was much closer than many of the others with Victoria Watlington ultimately coming out on top with 43.81% of the vote. The District 4 city council race was won by Renee Perkins Johnson with 36.54% of the vote, District 5 by Matt Newton with 60.44% of the vote, and District 7 by Ed Driggs with 68.15% of the vote.
In addition to electing their newest city council members, a number of voters also cast their ballots in the U.S. House of Representatives District 3 and District 9 elections. The District 3 election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Walter Jones who passed away earlier this year, was called early in the night for Greg Murphy (R), a current state House members, The District 9 special election was held after a ballot fraud scandal tainted the original election results from 2018. The polls leading up to the election showed Dan McCready (D), who also ran in 2018, and Dan Bishop (R), a current state Senate member, neck and neck. After going back and forth in the standings as vote counts rolled in Tuesday night, Dan Bishop narrowly won the seat with 50.74% of the vote.
Members of both the House and the Senate met this week to get to work on the redistricting process. Last week, a three-judge panel ruled the state legislative districts that were drawn in 2017 unconstitutional. The unanimous decision in Common Cause v. Lewis found that the drawing of the district maps used levels of political partisanship that unconstitutionally influenced the outcome of the elections by which legislative seats are currently held. The court gave the legislature two weeks to come up with new maps for the areas that were ruled to be partisan gerrymanders, or the courts would come up with new maps themselves. This means lawmakers have until next Wednesday, September 18th, to draw and approve remedial map plans.
Because the court ruled that the current maps cannot be used as a starting place for the redraw, the beginning of the week was all about figuring out just where to begin. Both House and Senate redistricting committee members agreed to use the maps presented by the plaintiff's expert in the case, Dr. Jowei Chen, a professor at the University of Michigan. The data used by Dr. Chen in drawing the maps produced two sets of 1,000 maps - 1,000 that did not include incumbency and 1,000 that did include incumbency.
Both committees used a similar process to decide which of the 1,000 maps they would use to establish their baseline map. The committees used the scores given by Dr. Chen based on the county cluster's level of compactness, number of split voting districts or precincts, and the number of split municipalities within the cluster. All three factors were then added up to create composite scores for each of the maps. The top five maps in each of the 7 county clusters that were ordered to be redrawn were ranked 1 - 5 by staff. Members of the committee agreed to randomly select one of the top five maps for each cluster, put all of them together, thus creating the statewide base map legislators would use as a starting point. An official lottery machine was brought in with the hopes of making the selection as random as possible.
Once each committee had their maps complete, members were able to amend or make changes to the map, mainly to prevent double bunking, where two incumbents are placed within the same district. The majority of the day Thursday was spent playing around with the numbers and negotiating among members of which precincts or which parts of the county would be included in their new districts.
With the court-ordered deadline quickly approaching, it has been a week of long nights and early mornings for both staff and lawmakers. Members of both the House and the Senate wrapped up their committee work Friday morning. Lawmakers will return on Monday at noon where the redistricting committees of both the House and the Senate will meet for a joint meeting dedicated to hearing public comment on the remedial map plans.The Senate plans to vote on the maps during Monday's evening floor session. The House will likely have to wait until Tuesday to vote on the maps on the floor.