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Senate leader defends abortion override vote

Posted July 28, 2011 9:46 p.m. EDT
Updated July 29, 2011 7:44 a.m. EDT

State lawmakers are headed home tonight after a stridently partisan session in which GOP-leaning voting maps were approved and a half-dozen of Gov. Bev Perdue’s vetoes were overridden, including a controversial measure adding a waiting period and other restrictions on abortions in North Carolina.

After adjournment, Senate Leader Phil Berger faced questions about the procedural move that allowed Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, to walk away from the abortion override vote.

Bingham voted against House Bill 854 when it first came through the Senate. He said earlier this week he didn’t intend to change his mind, but would be willing to “walk” – be absent – if the Senate GOP made it a caucus issue.

Senator Richard Stevens, R-Wake, didn’t vote for the bill when it first came through the Senate, either. Stevens has had an excused absence for the entire week of the special session.

But Bingham was in his seat when the Senate convened this morning. Less than an hour later, after a GOP caucus meeting, he was granted an excused absence and left the building.

Bingham’s departure left the Senate with 48 members present instead of 50, a change that allowed Senate Republicans to override the governor’s veto of H854 with the 29 votes they could muster, instead of the usual 30.

“I did not ask him not to be here,” Berger said. “Senator Bingham has been very clear as to his position on that particular issue. I respect his view on that, and based on the views of the members of the caucus as a whole, other than him, he made a decision.”

“My understanding is that he had some business that needed to be taken care of elsewhere as well,” Berger added.

He also defended his caucus’s plans for redrawing the state’s voting maps. He said the districts in the new map are “competitive,” whether or not Democrats think so. “In essence, what we did is, we replaced a map that the legislature drew in 1991 with a map that the legislature has drawn in 2011.”

Berger expects the September special session will be limited to “constitutional issues” (aka amendments) and any redistricting changes required by the courts. “I’ve got a fairly short list, and those are things I would expect us to be looking at,” he said.

Racial Justice Act repeal

There were rumors today that House Speaker Thom Tillis was trying to push the Senate to pass a repeal of the Racial Justice Act before leaving town -- a topic that was the likely subject of a lively conversation during Senate session this morning between House Democrats Womble, Parmon and Hackney, and Senators McKissick and Berger.

Berger confirmed the rumors. “The House was interested in us going ahead and moving forward with the bill that they sent over to us,” he said. “We talked about the fact that eligibility for this session didn’t exist, about whether or not there should be something put in the adjournment resolution to make it eligible.”

“The final decision was, it’s not in the adjournment resolution, [and] would not be eligible for the September 12th session, as I understand the adjournment resolution,” he said.

New Voter ID strategy?  

Berger denied any knowledge of another rumor – that House Republicans are gearing up to try to rewrite a batch of local bills as voter ID requirements for as many as half the state’s counties.

Putting the requirements into local bills is a way to get around Perdue, who doesn’t have veto power over local bills.

The tactic worked for a community college loan measure vetoed earlier this year. But it’s unclear whether it would work for a voter ID law. Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which covers the whole state, minority voters in a county requiring voter ID could challenge such a law as retrogression of ballot access, since minority voters are statistically less likely to have a state-issued identification that would qualify. 

Berger said it's up to the House to decide whether to move forward with the strategy. “You’ll have to ask them what they intend to do with that.”

Watch the whole interview at right.