Raleigh, N.C. — House Republicans headed off a potentially lengthy debate over whether to set aside more money for this year's elections with a little-used parliamentary procedure Wednesday.
Both the House and Senate had set aside $664,000 in their individual budgets to trigger the release of $4.1 million in federal Help America Vote Act -- or HAVA -- funds. Together, that extra $4.7 million would have gone toward maintaining voting machines, training poll workers and opening more early-voting sites.
But when the final compromise version of the $20.2 billion budget emerged, that money was gone, sparking protests from good government advocates. That budget has passed and is currently sitting on Gov. Bev Perdue's desk.
Typically, after every budget, there is a technical corrections bill that cleans up mistakes, adds in last-minute changes and otherwise tweaks the spending plan. That bill is S 187 this year and was on the House floor today.
Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, offered an amendment that would have cobbled together $560,000 to put toward that HAVA match. Of that, $330,000 came from a gubernatorial transition fund that is a new feature of this year's budget. Democrats have attacked it as a wasteful expenditure by Republicans. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the Democratic candidate for governor, has said that money would be better spent on something else.
Before Ross could explain her amendment, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, raised an "Objection to Consideration."
That threw off many of those in the chamber scrambling for their rule books and made even long-time General Assembly watchers scratch their heads. No such objection is listed in the House's official rules.
As it turns out, that particular procedure can be found in Mason's Manual, a legislative guide that is referenced in the House Rules as the go-to source for anything not spelled out in the normal rules.
House Principal Clerk Denise Weeks has been keeping tabs on sessions for 20 years and said she had never seen the motion used before. That said, she added, it is allowed. Weeks added that the last time any member she has talked to can remember the motion being used was sometime in the early 1980s.
Such a motion is non-debatable, which means as soon as it is raised the chamber votes. The House upheld Lewis' objection on a 64-49 vote. And technically, the House did not vote on Ross's amendment, but on whether she had the right to bring it to the floor. That could give members some cover if the HAVA funds become a campaign issue.
House Speaker Thom Tillis said he was unaware such a motion was available to members until Lewis brought it up. However, Tillis said he didn't have a problem with cutting off that debate.
"The rules are there for a reason," he said. Republican leaders have been trying to move quickly through their work in the closing days of session.
"The HAVA debate was had several times already in the context of the budget," Tillis said.
Ross said she was surprised to be summarily cut off.
"What are they afraid of?" she said after the session.
Asked why she thought Republican leaders didn't want to restore the money, Ross said she couldn't say for sure.
"Maybe they're thinking if the local folks don't get the HAVA money and aren't able to open as many early voting sites, that will be helpful to them on Election Day. I don't know. You'd have to ask them," Ross said.
On his way out of the chamber, Lewis said his disagreement was more fundamental.
"All the other amendments being offered were truly technical corrections, not big changes like that was," he said. "I didn't think it was appropriate."
Asked why the objection to drawing down HAVA money, Lewis said Republicans are concerned that the state has become too reliant on federal funds. He pointed to the growing problems with Medicaid and how North Carolina is beholden to federal rules that are ballooning the state's budget.
He also pointed to the loss of EduJobs funding, a federal funding source that expired this year. State lawmakers, he said, are being blamed for not making up that loss, despite not appropriating the money in the first place.
"We continually get sucked into getting this federal money that comes with federal strings attached," Lewis said. The state, he said, has already set aside its own money to provide for election administration, including $1.8 million from federal Title I funds and $600,000 in state funds directed to make polling placed more handicap accessible.
"We need to quit trying to get a quick sugar high by taking federal funds here and there," he said. Lewis he believed the state could conduct elections without the additional HAVA funds.
"I don't have any doubt in the work the counties and the State Board of Elections can do to run a smooth election," Lewis said.