A little perspective on midnight votes and ‘modern history’

The News & Observer offers us the following observation this morning:

The state legislature famously runs on its own time.

But last week’s hastily called 12:45 a.m. session set a record: It was the first time in modern history that lawmakers started a different session after midnight.

As one who has seen a number of post-midnight votes over the years, the statement struck me as odd.

Before going further, let’s get one item out of the way: The House’s vote to end the N.C. Association of Educators’ dues checkoff was a good idea executed in an incredibly poor fashion. Government transparency should dictate that no substantive votes are taken at 1:15 a.m. Period.

But, having said that, let’s not get carried away about the “precendent.”

Is it really the “first time in modern history that lawmakers started a different session after midnight”? There seem to be two ways to interpret that question. Both suggest answers of no.

That two answers are possible stems from different definitions of what constitutes a “session.” If a session marks each day in which legislators convene, the answer is clearly no. The state House convened sessions on June 4 and June 15 to take a total of four recorded votes on House Bill 200, the budget bill. Those votes were recorded between 12:10 and 12:19 in the morning. Those votes took place during “different” sessions convened after midnight.

And this was a practice used by Democratic House leaders in the past. The House took post-midnight votes on three of the four previous state budget bills as well: H.B. 1473 (12:07 a.m., May 11, 2007); S.B. 202 (12:11 a.m., June 13, 2009); S.B. 897 (12:06 a.m., June 4, 2010).

What the N&O writers might have been getting at was a second interpretation of “session,” meaning the collection of meetings on a particular topic or for a particular year. In other words, the “long session,” the “short session,” the “redistricting session,” or the “veto override session.” In this sense, the argument for a precedent is stronger. Still, the correct answer as to whether this was a new, “different” session is no.

Remember that the “long session” and “short session” are just two parts of the 2011-12 session that runs from the time lawmakers took their oaths after arriving in Raleigh last January until the House speaker and Senate president pro tem bang their gavels, the respective chambers’ clerks drop their hankies, and the lawmakers in the House and Senate adjourn sine die (Latin for “get the heck out of Dodge, you rascals”).

House leaders took the technical steps necessary to assure that the meeting convening in the wee hours of the morning last week was part of the session that started in January 2011 and that runs through the end of legislative business in 2012. So, no, this wasn’t a brand new session. It appears to have been unprecedented to adjust the terms of the 2011-12 session while in the midst of a specially convened veto override session, but that’s not the same thing as starting a “different” session.

One more note: The N&O uses the time issue to dismiss Republicans’ arguments comparing their veto override vote to the shenanigans surrounding the state lottery.

[W]hile plenty of late-night negotiating surrounded the lottery, all the votes on the bill occurred in the daylight hours, coming between 1 and 2 p.m.

This is true, but incomplete. The only reason there’s no record of a late-night lottery vote is that Senate leaders couldn’t round up the votes they needed to pass the bill or convince any lottery opponents to go home. Had Sens. Marc Basnight and Tony Rand been able to turn two votes in the wee hours of the morning, they would have done it.

Instead, those Democratic leaders sent the Senate home, promising that there would be no further substantive votes for the year. Then they surprised lottery opponents by reconvening six days later, when two Republican lottery “opponents” were conveniently missing in action. Yes, the final vote took place during the light of day. That didn’t make the process any better from a good-government standpoint than the process the House employed last week to enact one of its priorities.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

Reader Comments