A mistake. That's what a vote overriding Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of the controversial fracking bill came down to in the N.C. General Assembly late Monday.
Five-term Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Mecklenburg County has been on record opposing the controversial Senate Bill 820, a piece of GOP-backed legislation that could clear the way for fracking in North Carolina as soon as 2014.
But when Republican leaders in the N.C. House of Representatives called for a much-awaited veto override vote shortly after 11 p.m. Monday—some 12 hours after lawmakers began the day's marathon session—something went wrong.
"I reach over and hit my button," Carney said. "We were sitting there waiting for the vote to come out and I thought, 'Oh my God, I hit the green button.'"
House recordings capture Carney calling out to House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, but Tillis, a fracking supporter, did not answer Carney's pleas.
After rushing to the front of the legislative chamber to get the message to Tillis, the speaker told Carney she could not change her erroneous vote based on legislative rules.
Why? Carney's accidental "yea" provided the all-important 72nd vote to override Perdue on Senate Bill 820.
Rushing back to her seat, Carney again called out to the speaker in an effort to make a motion to suspend the rules—no rarity in Raleigh—but Tillis did not answer once again, instead turning the floor over to Paul Stam, a veteran GOP lawmaker from Raleigh and fracking backer. His motion to clinch the vote effectively blocked any effort to amend the outcome, making the Republicans' override of the Perdue veto official.
"I just felt slammed at that point," Carney said. "I had made an honest mistake, like lots of people up here have made. All I wanted was for him to give me the respect of being acknowledged."
Neither Tillis nor Stam returned Indy requests for comment Tuesday, but Denise Weeks, principal clerk for the Legislature, said lawmakers change their votes every day. She said the practice has grown more common in recent years.
It's a trickier proposition if it changes the outcome of a vote, Weeks said, noting lawmakers can weigh a motion to reconsider the vote in such an instance, a vote that would pass with a simple majority.
However, that vote never came, thanks to Stam's speedy move to clinch SB 820 and hand lame-duck Perdue her third veto override in a day.
Perdue issued the last-minute fracking veto Sunday, requiring a three-fifths vote to override in both chambers. In June, votes on SB 820 did not produce the necessary tallies in either chamber, but the absence of eight state senators Monday helped to speed a successful 29-13 override in the Senate Monday afternoon.
Carney's "whoops" moment provided a pivotal vote in the House Monday, but it would have been a moot point without "yea" votes from a handful of Democrats like Mecklenburg County's Kelly Alexander Jr. and Rodney Moore, as well as New Hanover County's Susi Hamilton.
Oddly enough, Hamilton was one of a number of Democrats who urged Perdue to veto the fracking bill last week, but the first-term lawmaker—honored as an environmentally friendly "Rising Star" by the N.C. League of Conservation Voters (NCLCV) last month—emerged as a key override backer as GOP legislators scrambled to secure the needed votes in the late hours Monday.
Hamilton's change of heart followed a GOP-supported technical corrections bill Monday night that came bundled with the extension of $60 million in film tax credits, credits some say would be used to draw big-budget projects like a planned Captain America sequel to film in Hamilton's eastern North Carolina district. Hamilton was absent when the N.C. House originally voted to approve the fracking bill last month.
By Tuesday morning, NCLCV had rescinded Hamilton's "Green Tie" award.
"Last night, Captain America prevailed over clean drinking water and the property rights of North Carolinians," said NCLCV Director of Governmental Relations Dan Crawford in a statement. "We found out that even this Green Tie Award winner 'has her price.' This was too big of a vote to sell out the environment on an issue that will change the landscape of our state for years to come."
At press time Tuesday, Hamilton had not responded to phone and email requests for comment from the Indy following the Legislature's adjournment.
Meanwhile, N.C. Rep. Joe Hackney, the former House speaker and current House minority leader for the Democrats, said this isn't the first time a lawmaker has mashed the wrong button. Legislators changed their votes probably a dozen times on Tuesday, Hackney said, although it's not typical that the mishap determines the outcome of a vote.
Hackney, who is retiring from the N.C. General Assembly after its adjournment, criticized the GOP for using such a tactic to approve contested legislation like SB 820.
"I think it's not good policy," Hackney said.
SB 820, authored by Mecklenburg County Republican Bob Rucho and McDowell County Republican Mitch Gillespie, orders the state to construct a regulatory framework for the natural gas drilling industry over the next two years, ultimately requiring lawmakers' approval to begin the permitting process for fracking.
It also establishes a regulatory mining commission in which six of 12 voting members have experience or financial interest in the drilling industry. The remaining slots are to be filled by local government leaders in the fracking region, two officials with experience in waste management and a handful of members with backgrounds in environmental conservation.
Fracking involves pumping a pressurized stew of chemicals underground to break up rocky shale formations and tap into trapped natural gas.
Some say the drilling—which would be centralized in primarily rural counties like Lee, Chatham and Moore—will provide jobs and income for a battered economy, although job estimates have been murky and once-grand estimates of the state's gas supply have shrank in recent official estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey. Meanwhile, opponents point to widespread reports of environmental pollution in other states as reasons to oppose fracking in North Carolina.
Environmentalists, long opposed to the prospect of fracking, lashed out at the controversial legislation following Monday night's drama.
"Our drinking water has now been put at risk, even though the required three-fifths of the members did not want to override," said Molly Diggins, state director of the N.C. Sierra Club. "How ironic that in an industry plagued with accidents, (hydraulic) fracturing or 'fracking' today became legal in North Carolina based on an accidental vote."
Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina, chimed in with her own angry statement in the early morning hours Tuesday.
"Adopting sweeping fracking policy without adequate study is bad enough," Ouzts said. "Doing so with a tricky parliamentary maneuver is shameful."
"I'm heartbroken that happened," Carney said. "I take full responsibility for my vote. Nobody mashed that button for me, I did it. But it was a mistake."
Disclosure: Billy Ball's mother-in-law has been a paid consultant for Rep. Carney's campaigns since 2005 and a volunteer for Carney since 2002.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Regret the error."