Fracking override divides Dems, seatmates

A controversial veto override on a bill to legalize fracking in NC has divided House Democrats, raised questions of pay-for-play, and caused a rift between two Democratic seatmates.

Posted Updated

Laura Leslie

A controversial veto override on a bill to legalize fracking in North Carolina has divided the House Democrats - and caused a rift between two Democratic seatmates.

Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover, voted with House Republican leaders Monday night to override Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of Senate Bill 820, a proposal that would allow shale gas exploration.

Hamilton had voted against earlier legislation to allow fracking. Just last week, her name was one of about a dozen on a letter from Democratic lawmakers to Perdue, asking her to veto the fracking bill and another measure, S.B. 382, regarding Jordan Lake near Durham.

Today, Hamilton said she never wanted Perdue to veto the fracking bill. She said she wanted Perdue to veto S.B. 382. 

"The letter that went out to the governor regarding the veto request for fracking went out with my name on it inappropriately," Hamilton said. "Two requests got placed into one letter against my knowledge."

That came as a surprise to Hamilton's seatmate, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D- Guilford, who authored the letter and put Hamilton's name on it. She described the situation as "uncomfortable," but took issue with Hamilton's characterization.

Harrison said Hamilton knew what the letter entailed before she volunteered to sign it. Even after a copy of it was sent to Hamilton's office, Harrison said, Hamilton never voiced concerns about it until Monday.

That's when a $60 million film tax credit, widely considered dead for the session, suddenly re-emerged. The credit, a one-year extension of a refundable credit set to expire at the end of 2013, could help Hamilton's district attract the sequel to "Captain America." The production company has been looking at Wilmington as a potential filming location.

House lawmakers called a special Finance Committee meeting at 10:30 p.m. Monday to insert the tax credit into a bill dedicated to fixing technical problems in state law.

Shortly after that, Hamilton voted for the fracking override. And shortly after that, the bill containing the tax credit was approved. 

Hamilton said today there was no connection between the the film tax credit and her apparent change of heart on the fracking bill. She made no apologies for supporting the tax credit championed by fellow New Hanover Rep. Danny McComas.

"We've seen $200 million of filming in North Carolina this year alone just because of the film credit," Hamilton said.

The Wilmington Star-News reports Hamilton herself has profited, too, renting out her Wilmington house last month to a film producer.  

Hamilton was filmed high-fiving Rep. McComas after the tax credit was approved in House Finance. She denies they were celebrating the tax credit, but says she "can't recall" what it was about. "There was quite a bit going on yesterday."

Whatever it was they were celebrating, Hamilton maintains, the tax credit didn't sway her vote on fracking.

"My choice to override the governor on the fracking bill is much like Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton's and the Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory," she said. "It's the best compromise we're going to get for right now."

Hamilton's override vote bewildered and angered environmental groups who had previously lauded her green bona fides. Several accused her of having traded her vote for the tax credit. The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters even asked her to return the "Rising Star" award it gave her last month for her support for environmental issues. 

Hamilton shrugged off the award rescission. "They're certainly entitled to offer the award to whoever they choose, and they're entitled to rescind  it from whoever they choose."

Hamilton said she voted for the override because she was afraid the next legislature might pass an even less environmentally friendly fracking bill. She said S.B. 820 is a compromise.

She told reporters and, via e-mail, other House Democrats, that conservation league staffer Carrie Clark had encouraged her to override the veto. The idea of not vetoing the bill and accepting this as a compromise came from that [awards] dinner,"  she said.

Conservation league spokesman Dan Crawford fired back.

"Rep. Hamilton appears to have a guilty conscience about her decision and is grasping for straws in order to justify her actions," he said via e-mail. "She voted wrong on the bill and she simply needs to state that there was a better offer on the table and she took it."

"It is clear Rep. Hamilton is trying to lay the blame for a very bad decision she made on the backs of a staffer; that just illustrates what we have been saying, she doesn't have the courage or ethics we look for in a Green Tie award recipient and endorsed elected representative," Crawford concluded. 

House Speaker Thom Tillis wouldn't confirm that he traded the tax credit for Hamilton's vote. But he told reporters today that negotiations are an everyday part of doing business at the legislature.

"We've negotiated with the state employees, we've negotiated with the NCAE," he said. "People advocate for their causes." 

Harrison didn't deny that cutting deals isn't unusual at the legislature. But she said she was disappointed that the fracking bill was part of it.

"It's an issue of monumental importance to the state's future," Harrison said. "I would never trade my vote on that." 


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