RALEIGH – Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly keep creating more tools they say will help new Gov. Pat McCrory make his mark on state government. But each new move seems to create another avenue for criticism of the first GOP governor in 20 years, as well as for the legislative leadership.
The latest device came from the N.C. Senate, where Republicans muscled a bill through the chamber last week that would fire more than 100 appointees on several high-profile boards and commissions. Such a move would allow McCrory and legislative leaders to pick their replacements.
GOP senators made no bones about their motives to dismiss current appointees, most of them chosen by Democratic governors and legislators. They said it’s time to clean house and give McCrory the chance for people who’ll carry out his philosophy. Twelve special S N.C. uperior Court judgeships – some which Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue appointed her allies to six weeks ago on the way out of office – would be abolished.
Republicans hold power simultaneously in both the executive and legislative branches for the first time in 140 years.
“When you have a new management team, which we are, and you have a new governor, which we do, it is the prerogative of this body to ... make fundamental changes to our state government,” said N.C. Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, during floor debate. “I know it’s not pretty sometimes when new management comes to town and says we’ve got to make fundamental changes.”
Democrats call the measure a brash partisan move that upends an orderly system of appointing board and commission members designed to retain expertise and institutional memory. McCrory still would be able to fill commissions with his own appointments as terms of current members expire if the bill doesn’t become law.
The targeted panels determine utility rates, coastal and environmental policies, hunting rules, workers’ compensation awards and lottery games.
“It is truly breathtaking in scope,” said N.C. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, adding that the proposal is “a crass political power play.”
Other Democrats are accusing McCrory of conspiring with lawmakers to clear out the boards, but a leading Senate Republican said the chamber – and not McCrory – created the bill. The governor has yet to talk publicly about the bill’s content. The bill now goes to the N.C. House, where Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, said Republicans have concerns about it.
The bill is the latest way the GOP-led legislature has offered McCrory to assist him in his new job.
Republican lawmakers last summer gave the next governor the authority to set the salaries of his Cabinet secretaries. That was intended to attract better talent to run big agencies.
But when McCrory raised the salaries of most new Cabinet members by roughly $6,000 or $13,000, he took heat from a state employees’ group whose members had received one small raise in four years.
Legislators also passed in 2012 the ability of the next governor to have more than double the number of state government positions exempt from normal personnel rules – up to 1,000. The political appointments give McCrory more latitude in bringing in his own people.
McCrory’s lieutenants have seen the pitfalls of making appointments.
The administration’s choice to lead the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education withdrew days before she was to begin work Monday. Dianna Lightfoot stepped away when it was revealed she led a group that actively opposed pre-kindergarten programs like one the state has operated for years and McCrory said during the campaign is a proven concept.
The new appointments bill could place added burdens upon an administration from a party with a short bench of applicants with state government experience that would be expected quickly to fill key panels such as the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, N.C. Industrial Commission and N.C. Utilities Commission.
“This bill might frustrate their own goals in helping McCrory get a jump start,” said Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, which wrote a report studying boards and commissions in the 1980s. “If you remove all that policy memory it will take a year for all the new people to get up to speed.”
But N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, a primary sponsor of the appointments bill, said “just because you’re on a board doesn’t mean you’re an expert.”
Utilities Commission appointments already will be touchy given McCrory worked for nearly 30 years at Duke Energy Corp. Environmental groups already contend McCrory should recuse himself from commission appointments because Duke is the state’s largest electricity provider. McCrory said last summer he was a Duke shareholder.
Republicans say there’s precedent for firing current commission members, arguing other governors such as Republican Jim Holshouser and Democrat Jim Hunt have moved out previous administration members. Republicans also cite legislation going back 40 years as proof that legislators have taken similar action, but a review of laws identified by Senate GOP staff doesn’t appear to show near the kind of sweeping changes that’s attempting to be done now.
The dismissals, Coble said, are “unprecedented.”