RALEIGH — An N.C. Senate committee Tuesday backed a Republican proposal to fire the members of several key regulatory and policy boards and let GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and the party's legislative leaders pick their replacements.
Democrats called it a GOP power grab, while Republicans said it's a cost-saving measure that also gives the new governor the ability to place quickly his own mark in state government. The legislation also would do away with more than a dozen state boards and commissions, scale back others by size or term lengths and reshuffle the power to make appointments to the panels.
"We're cleaning up some things that have been left behind, some of them for as long as four decades," said Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, adding that it should make the state more efficient and save $2 million.
Democrats on the committee said they were floored by the plan to dismiss all current members of significant panels such as the North Carolina Utilities Commission, state Industrial Commission, Coastal Resources Commission and state Lottery Commission.
"I think it is a breathtaking and unprecedented power grab — there's no other way to describe it," said Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake, adding that removing everyone at once means the panels lose expertise in things such as regulating power companies and coastal issues.
"Look, they won. I understand that Gov. McCrory gets to make appointments," Stein said, "but their throwing the entire thing out so they can put their folks on is just wrong."
Rabon, R-Brunswick, disagreed that the bill was a power grab or about replacing Democrats on boards and commissions with Republicans. He said some who are dismissed could be reappointed. But he acknowledged the bill would give McCrory the ability to place his own mark on government.
The new "administration may see fit to have the people on boards and commissions that, let's say, are more like minded and who are willing to carry out the desires, if you will, or the philosophy of the new administration," Rabon told committee members.
Democrats in charge of state government placed their imprint on such panels for generations. Republicans haven't been in charge of both the executive and legislative branches in more than 140 years.
Rabon disagreed that the wholesale cleanup, or even dismissal, of commissions and boards was extraordinary. Senate Republican leaders cited past legislation at the start of previous administrations — both Democratic and Republican — they say show the same thing occurred. However, veteran observers at the Legislative Building couldn't recall such wholesale changes as in Tuesday's bill.
Either state law or by tradition, the terms of members who serve on the boards and commissions usually don't expire all at once.
Rabon said he expected McCrory to be happy with parts of the bill, but didn't say which areas. McCrory Press Secretary Crystal Feldman said the administration hadn't seen the bill as of midday Tuesday and couldn't comment.
Stein asked Rabon whether commission members had done anything wrong to warrant being fired. Rabon said the seven-member Utilities Commission, which regulates telecommunications, electric and natural gas markets, at times has been accused of being "rubber stamps" for some utility companies. The commission decides, for example, whether utilities like Duke Energy can raise their customer rates.
Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said the legislation targets environmental commissions in particular. The Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources Commission and a coastal advisory council would see their current memberships dismissed and panel numbers reduced. The governor would appoint a smaller percentage of the total members to some of the panels.
The North Carolina Coastal Federation said in a release it was a "radical bill that "completely overturns decades of work by state lawmakers and governors to promote balance and partnerships into how the state manages its environment."
The bill could have gone farther. A provision that would have created two additional seats for justices on the state Supreme Court in early 2015 was removed in the committee. The state constitution allows the state's highest court to have up to nine justices. There are currently seven on the court.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the commit chairman, said the idea — labeled by critics as court packing — wasn't gone forever.
"We will probably visit that at a later date,' he said.
A bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Rules Committee would eliminate, retool or reorganize state boards and commissions. Significant changes in the bill would:
— reduce Coastal Resources Commission membership from 15 to 11 and end current members' terms when bill becomes law. All 15 are now appointed by the governor. Four of the 11 would be appointed by legislative leaders.
— reduce membership of Coastal Resources Advisory Council from 45 members to 20 and end current members' terms June 30. At least half of the new members must live at the coast.
— reduce Environmental Management Commission membership from 19 to 13 and reduce the number appointed by the governor from 13 to seven. Current members' terms expire when the bill becomes law.
— end terms of current Industrial Commission members April 15, provide for staggered terms and reduce terms of new members from six to four years.
— end terms of current Utilities Commission members when the bill becomes law and reduces terms from eight to six years.
— give General Assembly leaders two extra appointments on the Wildlife Resources Commission. Current members' terms would end June 30. All terms would now be two years.
— eliminate 12 Special Superior Court judge positions effective July 1. Governors have had power to appoint such judgeships.
— end the nine-member North Carolina Turnpike Authority and give the board's power to the Board of Transportation.
— place limits on serving on the State Board of Elections to three four-year terms and declares vacant board positions where the person currently is in a fourth or greater consecutive term.
— direct the governor to appoint the chairman of the State Board of Education. Board members currently choose the chairman.
— end the terms of current members on the State Lottery Commission when the bill become law and reduce terms from five to two years.
— allow the governor, state public safety secretary or a certified law enforcement officer to supervise sworn members of the State Highway Patrol. Current law gives such authority to the governor, public safety