Raleigh, N.C. — A bill repealing the 2007 law that requires power companies to obtain some of their power from renewable sources would have failed a Senate Finance Committee vote last Wednesday had the chairman actually counted the ayes and nos, interviews with committee members show.
Committee Co-chairman Bill Rabon declared the measure had passed after a voice vote and ignored calls for a formal vote count, video of the meeting shows. Senate Finance vote on renewables bill
The episode is far from unprecedented but demonstrates the broad latitude committee chairmen have to push measures they favor or that are backed by key legislative leaders.
"I walked out of there shaking my head," Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, said Friday. McLaurin, a former mayor of Rockingham, said he was disappointed in the procedure but added it was not the first time he had seen a bill move through a committee in that fashion during his three-month tenure.
Vote exposes arcane rules
Senate rules prohibit what is known as a roll call vote, during which each member's name is called and they vote on the bill. Rules do allow "division," which amounts to a show of hands for and against the bill. A division vote would not record how each member voted but does give an accurate count of the ayes and nos.
At the end of Wednesday's 44 -minute hearing, Rabon called for a voice vote, with members simply answering "aye" or "no" in two groups. Reports from those in the room and a review of meeting video indicate that the "no" votes were louder than the "yes" votes. Several members, including Sens. Josh Stein, D-Wake, and Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, can be heard calling for division before and after the voice vote.
Rabon ignored those calls and gaveled the meeting to a close. He did not return phone calls to WRAL News seeking comment.
The practice of slamming down the gavel before a formal vote count can be taken did not originate with Republicans. Democratic chairmen used the maneuver when Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, was president pro tem of the Senate, and when the practice was used by Democrats in power, Republicans members chafed at the tactic.
"It's a long-time practice. I've seen it since 1971," said Ran Coble, director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. Coble is a former legislative staffer and long-time observer of the General Assembly.
In the best-case scenario, Coble said, a committee chairman will allow a pause between calling the result of the voice vote and declaring a final result. That's something Rabon didn't do.
Although powerful committee chairmen have been known to ram bills through the legislature using this tactic, Coble said, it often poses a long-term problem in an institution built on trust.
"This is a dog that will come back to bite in the future if you don't treat it fairly now," Coble said. "People remember it when you're trying to do something against the will of the majority. It's something that undermines that trust."
'Renewables' law creates jobs, but passes on higher costs
In 2007, North Carolina lawmakers required that power companies either generate or buy a growing percentage of their power from renewable sources such as wind, solar and even poultry or hog waste. That percentage will rise from 3 percent this year to 6 percent in 2015. Advocates credit those allowances with helping to grow “green” industries, which added workers even as other industries were shedding jobs during the recent recession.
It's worth noting that, when the 2007 bill passed the Senate, it did so with the backing of all 18 Republicans who served in the chamber at the time. That included Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, the author of the repeal measure, and Sen Phil Berger, the current president pro tem of the Senate. That 2007 measure was the result of lengthy negotiations between power companies, renewable energy advocates, other businesses and lawmakers.
This year, Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, tried to push a bill to roll back that set-aside through the House. But despite his post as the House majority whip, a job responsible for gathering and counting votes for key priorities, Hager's measure failed in the House Public Utilities Committee, which he chairs. Fellow Republicans on the committee said they were loath to undermine industries that had thrived under the policy.
Hager and others pushing for the repeal say it is costing consumers money.
"I think it's important that we not force folks to use higher-cost energy," said Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort. "It hurts everybody. It particularly hurts the economy."
However, advocates argue on a typical residential power bill, the cost of the renewable energy portfolio surcharge is less than 50 cents.
Unable to move the bill through the House, Hager watched as the Senate Finance Committee took up a nearly identical measure that would roll back subsidies and set-asides for renewable energy producers by 2023. Again, the bill faced stiff criticism from both members of the committee as well as those in various industries.
"Because of that state policy, investments were made both by poultry and the pork livestock industries," Paul Sherman with the North Carolina Farm Bureau said to the committee.
Livestock producers have invested millions of dollars to develop systems to use animal waste as fuel for electricity generation.
"We would like you to not support this bill so we can see that investment to continue to grow and be able to bear fruit," Sherman told lawmakers last week.
WRAL News counts the votes
The Senate Finance Committee has 38 members: 27 Republicans and 11 Democrats. It has jurisdiction over all bills that raise money either through taxes or fees.
Attendance records from Wednesday’s meeting show two senators, Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, and Mike Woodard, D-Durham, were absent when the vote was taken. A third senator, Peter Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, was not in the room when the final committee vote occurred. That left 10 Democrats and 25 Republicans present and voting.
"Our caucus was 100 percent against it (the bill), and everyone who was there voted no," said Ford Porter, a staffer for Nesbitt, the Senate minority leader. Interviews with individual Democratic senators confirm that all 10 would have voted against the measure.
That meant the bill would have needed support from at least 18 of the 25 Republicans to pass. If eight of those Republicans voted "no," there would have been no way for the bill to pass had Rabon sustained the call for division.
In fact, WRAL News spoke with eight Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee who said they opposed the bill and voted no on Wednesday. Two more refused to disclose how they voted.
Several of those Republicans said they did not like the protections for renewable energy and would have voted against the 2007 bill. However, they added, businesses have made investments based on the assurances given in that 2007 bill.
"I think we need to honor those agreements," said Sen. Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, who said he voted against the repeal measure.
In addition to Meredith, Republican Sens. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus, Brent Jackson of Sampson, Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg, Jerry Tillman of Randolph, Austin Allran of Catawba and Tommy Tucker of Union said they voted against the bill.
Sen. Neil Hunt, R-Wake, said, "It needed to be amended," when asked about the bill. When asked if would have raised his hand in favor of the bill during a division account, Hunt shook his head and repeated, "It needed to be amended."
Without the support of those eight Republicans, there is no way the measure could have passed the committee.
Two other Republicans declined to say how they voted.
"I'm respecting the chairman's call," Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, said, adding that, if the bill makes it to the Senate floor, there will be an electronic vote. "You'll certainly see how I vote when that comes."
Sen. Tamra Barringer, R-Wake, also declined to say how she voted.
"I'm not so sure I want to disclose that," Barringer said, adding that she was still studying the bill.
She added that, if her position was known, "lobbyists from the other side would be on me like ducks on a junebug." She said she wants to take her time considering the matter before being forced to cast a recorded vote on the measure.
That recorded vote may never occur.
Jackson said there is some thought the measure may be sent to a study committee, which would allow lawmakers to work on the measure in 2014.
"The consensus seems to be that we don't need to do it as quickly as we're doing this," Jackson said.