GOP lawmakers seek to erode governor’s power on key panels

Published 3:33 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2023


Associated Press

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina Republicans redoubled their efforts on Tuesday to erode the powers of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and future governors by advancing a measure that would reduce the number of appointments he makes to several key state commissions.

On a party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would rejuggle the makeup of panels that, among other duties, approve electricity rates and road-building projects and adopt environmental regulations.

The bill would let the General Assembly pick appointees on these panels for the first time, or appoint more than they already get to. And the state treasurer or agriculture commissioner, both of whom lead executive branch departments but are elected separately from the governor, also would get to pick some members.

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and bill sponsor, said the overwhelming number of appointees on most of these named commissions are gubernatorial picks, “which doesn’t bode well for diversity of thought or representation.”

“This bill is about good shared governance and bringing balance and accountability to the unelected boards,” Daniel added.

Critics warned the measure, if enacted into law, would set up yet another costly legal showdown between the governor and the legislature over the division of their powers.

Of the nine boards or commissions whose leadership would be changed, eight currently give the governor a majority of the positions or, in the case of the Utilities Commission, all seven members. Those members also are subject to House and Senate confirmation.

The updated Utilities Commission, for example, would be expanded to nine members, of which the governor would choose four going forward.

Four would be earmarked for the General Assembly and one would be appointed by the treasurer.

Cooper and legislative leaders have fought about the balance of their respective powers since even before Cooper took office in 2017. This history contributes to suspicion by Democrats on the Judiciary Committee that the bill is a partisan power play.

The state treasurer and agriculture commissioner are currently both Republicans. The GOP has controlled the legislature since 2011.

The governor’s press secretary, Sam Chan, called the bill “another massive, unconstitutional power grab by Republican legislators who have a track record of right-wing partisan appointees” that don’t reflect the state’s demographic or political diversity.

“This legislation will hurt the state’s efforts for public health, clean water, more commuter rail transportation and lower electric bills,” Chan said in a statement.

Republican legislators are one House seat short of holding veto-proof control in both chambers, weakening Cooper’s veto power.

That power came into focus Monday when legislation shifting authority of the state’s schools for the blind and deaf to new trustee boards — to which most members would be picked by legislative leaders — became law after Cooper neither signed nor vetoed it. Last year, when Democrats held more seats, Cooper vetoed an almost identical bill, saying the boards were unconstitutional. He said the same thing Monday.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 targeting the incoming governor in part by altering the makeup of the State Board of Elections, which is controlled by appointees he chooses from his party.

Cooper went to court and successfully challenged the election board changes. Recent state Supreme Court decisions — including one involving former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory — in part declared the compositions of some boards can be unlawful when they interfere with the governor’s ability to carry out laws and leave him with no meaningful control over them.

“I feel like we’re setting up ourselves for more litigation,” said Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

Daniel, the Republican senator, made the distinction that in most cases the executive branch — defined as the governor and Council of State members — would still hold a majority of appointments. For two panels — the Board of Transportation and the Economic Investment Committee, which awards incentives to lure companies to the state — the legislature would now pick a majority of those seats.

“We believe all the changes in the bill comply with existing case law or are distinguishable because of other factors, or are situations that our courts have not yet considered,” Daniel said.

Cooper last year created a study panel to consider changes to choosing the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, whose voting members all are currently elected by the General Assembly.

Other high-profile commissions whose makeup would be altered include the Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources Commission and Wildlife Resources Commission.