Posted: June 23, 2003
JOHN VIOLA'S PHANTOM VOTE
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
A sizable tax package that Gov. Ruth Ann
Minner wanted and the legislature delivered to her last week has
been signed safely into law, but only inside Legislative Hall is
there an understanding of what a close call it was.
It is because of an episode that is becoming
known in Dover as "John Viola's Phantom Vote."
State Rep. John J. Viola is a three-term
Democrat, a favorite of labor with a district in the Newark-Glasgow
area. He is someone who has been in the General Assembly long enough
to be coming into his own, or in other words, to pull a fast one if
Viola was not expected to have much of a part
to play in the consideration of the tax package in the state House
of Representatives -- not beyond being one of a solid Democratic
bloc of votes that Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan was rounding
up for his governor.
The tax package -- four bills that would
generate $145 million from corporate taxes and fees, cigarette sales
and casino revenues -- came before the House last Tuesday, June 17.
Along with a series of spending cuts, the legislation was expected
to mean a balanced budget for the next fiscal year at a time when
nearly all the states are experiencing financial shortfalls.
Tax legislation is harder to pass than most,
usually requiring a three-fifths supermajority vote, or 25 of the 41
representatives. Still, the bills had strong bipartisan sponsorship
in the House leadership, and there were expected to be enough votes
among the chamber's 29 Republicans and 12 Democrats for passage,
even though a small band of Republicans led by Rep. William A.
Oberle Jr. was maneuvering feverishly to stop it.
The tension was heightened because William
Swain Lee, the Republican candidate for governor, paid an unexpected
visit to Legislative Hall in a last-ditch effort against the tax
package. It had helped to keep the House Republicans bickering in a
closed caucus for hours.
The stickiest vote was the one to raise
cigarette taxes from 24 cents to 55 cents a pack, estimated to mean
about $29 million in new revenue. Not only was there the ingrained
reluctance to raise taxes, but cigarettes have been a sore subject
in Legislative Hall since the smoking ban was enacted last year.
The cigarette-tax bill was the last to be
considered. The others had been approved. All 12 Democratic votes
were needed, including those of the four legislators who sided with
the smokers earlier this year in a futile try to relax the smoking
ban. Viola was one of them.
The roll was called. The House votes in
alphabetical order, the members responding aloud as Chief Clerk
JoAnn M. Hedrick reads their names. The voting was tight as she
called on Viola.
In the back of the chamber where Viola sits,
people thought they heard him vote "yes." In the front of the
chamber, where the leadership and the chief clerk sit, people
thought they heard him vote "no."
"Mr. Viola, no," Hedrick announced.
There was immediate consternation. Without
Viola's vote, the bill would fail. Throughout the chamber there was
a rustle. Most of the words being spoken could not be made out,
expect for one that was said repeatedly. Viola. Viola. Viola.
Oberle, sensing an opening that could kill the
bill, demanded a recess. Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith,
trying to save it, said a recess wasn't needed. There was a
breathless pause, and then Gilligan -- with a gulp and a stutter --
came up with a take-charge move worthy of a wink from Lyndon B.
Johnson, one of the greatest legislative floor managers ever.
"Rep. Viola's . . . how . . . how . . . how do
you have Rep. Viola voting?" Gilligan asked.
"Mr. Viola, voting no," Hedrick said.
"He's voting yes," Gilligan said, assertively
That was too much for Oberle. "Mr. Gilligan
voted for Mr. Viola?" he said.
"No, he did vote for himself. It was mis-recorded,"
Republican House Speaker Terry R. Spence
stepped up then, asking Viola to stand and give his vote.
"I voted yes," Viola said.
"OK," Spence said, and there seemed to be
relief in his voice.
Spence declared that the bill had passed the
House. Along with the other tax measures, it was sent to the Senate,
which approved the package the next day. The governor signed all the
legislation into law the day after that.
Viola in an interview insisted he voted "yes"
all along. In the official tape recording of the proceedings, it
sounded as though Viola did vote "yes," but as he spoke, an open
microphone somewhere in the chamber picked up the chatter of someone
else saying "no," and that is what the chief clerk apparently heard.
"Somebody said a 'no' into the mike, and it
overshadowed. I'm not one to stir that much," Viola said.
The identity of the phantom naysayer and
whether it was mischief-making or simply coincidental are unlikely
ever to be known. Whatever happened, it made what would have been a
nerve-wracking roll call in any case even more so.
"I think it may be the first time anything
like this has happened," said Hedrick, the chief clerk, "and it
happened on something this important."
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