RALEIGH — A GOP leader in the N.C. House of Representatives says he sent a text message to some party members before Wednesday morning's veto override vote, telling them to be in their seats by 8:30 a.m.
Rep. Jon Hardister, the GOP's second-in-command and who represents part of Guilford County in District 59, told The News & Observer Thursday the text message was routine and that he regularly reminds members to be present for sessions where votes will be held. In this case, he said, he sent the note to 10 members who have long commutes to Raleigh, reminding them to be on time.
"We need our Republican members to be present on the floor when we are in session, not only for votes, but in case procedural motions are made," Hardister said in an email Thursday to the N&O. "As session enters September, it's increasingly difficult to get all of our members in each voting session."
But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said he thinks the text message is proof that Republicans planned in advance to hold the controversial vote Wednesday morning without telling Democrats.
Jackson said Thursday that Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Republican from Person County, showed him a text message he received from someone in Republican leadership. Jackson said the text to Yarborough suggested that Democrats were planning some sort of action related to redistricting.
It's not clear what action the Democrats could have been contemplating, given that they hold a significant minority of seats.
Jackson recalls the text saying, "Be in your seat at 8:30."
What happened shortly after 8:30 on Wednesday escalated tensions between legislative Republicans and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who have been bickering over the state budget all summer. Cooper vetoed the GOP-proposed budget June 5.
The House put the budget veto override on the calendar every day, but didn't call for a vote until Wednesday. Then, House Speaker Tim Moore called a vote to override Cooper's veto — while many of the Democrats were absent.
Moore said he didn't orchestrate the vote, but called for it only because the opportunity to break the Democrats' firewall presented itself.
Republican's text message
Jackson, who said he already was skeptical of Moore's statement, said the text Yarborough showed him cemented his view that Republicans manipulated Democrats to get an outcome they wanted.
"It became clear when I saw that (text) that at least some members of the Republican caucus knew exactly what they were doing," Jackson told The News & Observer Thursday night. "They knew we had been told that there would be no votes at 8:30 in the morning, and they took advantage of that in order to pass their budget override."
Yarborough could not be reached for comment on Thursday. An N&O reporter received no response after emailing Yarborough or calling the numbers listed on his website.
Hardister acknowledged that the text he sent mentioned redistricting, and said he feared Democrats might make a motion related to redistricting. The House and Senate are in the middle of drawing new legislative maps for 2020 after a court ruled last week that the current maps are unconstitutional gerrymanders.
"There was no mention of a veto override. I was as surprised as anyone when I got to the House floor and noticed that numerous Democrats were absent," Hardister continued. "The Speaker called the vote, as he said he would when it appeared that we had the votes to proceed with the override."
Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican, agreed with Hardister that texting is standard procedure for House whips, who are in charge of making sure their members attend session.
"It's like herding cats," Saine said. He disputed the suggestion that the texts were part of a plan to thwart Democrats.
"If you look at the vote, not all of our members were on the floor," Saine noted.
The N&O asked Hardister for a copy of the text messages or for permission to view them, but he declined. Sharing electronic correspondence between Republican House members would break caucus protocol, Hardister said.
Emails and text messages to and from most government employees and elected officials are public documents under the state's open records law. State lawmakers, however, are exempt.
The House vote to override Cooper's budget veto provided a climax to a summer-long spat between Republicans who are used to having control of the budget and a governor eager to wield some influence.
Until last year, Republicans had a supermajority in the House and Senate. That meant they could override Cooper even if he vetoed any of their bills. But Democrats won enough races last November to break the GOP supermajority, meaning Republicans usually need help from Democrats to override Cooper.
Some Democrats voted to pass the Republican budget the first go-round. But, since Cooper's veto, they had held the party line.
On Wednesday, many Democrats skipped the morning session because they believed there would be no votes.
Was a vote scheduled?
The budget was on the calendar. But Jackson said he was told by Republican Rep. David Lewis, of Harnett County, that no votes would be held during the morning session. So Jackson told the Democratic caucus that they didn't need to be there.
Lewis denied he ever told Jackson such a thing. He acknowledged texting a WRAL reporter Tuesday night to tell her he thought there would be no votes during the Wednesday morning session. But Lewis didn't relay that prediction to anyone else, he said.
"At any time that there has been a no-vote session scheduled, the chair has either announced that from the dais, or has sent an email, or both," Lewis said. "None of those occurred yesterday."
As is the case in the House, three-fifths of the state senators present when the vote is called must vote for the proposed GOP budget again in order to override Cooper. While Wednesday's vote got Republicans one step closer to overriding the governor, their method for doing so may have made it harder for Senate Republicans to find friends across the aisle.