RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Lawmakers sometimes wind up voting on the same bill several times.

But which of those votes should actually matter to you?

That’s the question at the heart of a dispute between Wiley Nickel and Sam Searcy — two former Democratic colleagues in the North Carolina Senate who are now running to represent the state’s 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House.

It centers on how they voted three years ago on Senate Bill 559, which would have allowed state regulators to permit utilities to increase rates years ahead of time instead of year-to-year, helping the companies plan for major projects but potentially resulting in bigger monthly bills for consumers. Environmental groups staunchly opposed that part of the bill.

“This was the most important vote we took for an entire term in the Senate on the environment,” Nickel said.

It came up recently in a voter forum held by the Goldsboro NAACP. 

“My question is, what’s your awareness of that bill?” one of the attendees asked. “Did you vote for that bill, and if you voted for it why? And if you didn’t vote for that bill, why didn’t you?”

Calling it a key difference between them, Nickel said he voted against it but said Searcy was for it.

The General Assembly’s online vote tracker shows Nickel did vote no on SB559 on May 2, 2019, while Searcy voted yes.

But Searcy says that vote count doesn’t tell the whole story — and accused Nickel of misinterpreting it to distort his record.

He said he only voted yes to give Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue negotiating power for further revisions to the bill.

“He is only taking a procedural vote, which is one piece of a huge process, and trying to make it sound like that’s the way I voted,” Searcy said. “And that’s not the truth.”

How often do those strategic procedural votes happen in the General Assembly?

Searcy calls them “extremely common” for lawmakers on certain committees or are experts in specific subject areas.

“The only vote that counts is the final vote when we’re getting ready to send a piece of legislation to the governor,” he said. “And that’s the one I voted no on.”

Nickel doesn’t buy that.

“It doesn’t add up because we passed the bill through the Senate,” Nickel said. “If the House had voted for it, it would become law. … There’s nothing procedural about a vote that when you vote yes on a bill, it becomes law if it doesn’t come back.”

Searcy said those negotiations ultimately were fruitless. So when the bill came up for another vote on Oct. 2, 2019, both Nickel and Searcy voted no.

“That was what I was talking about at that forum, that my final vote was simply no,” Searcy said.

The sections having to do with rate hikes eventually were taken out, and the bill passed the Senate 48-0.