A lawyer for the General Assembly said today that Gov. Bev Perdue had no constitutional authority to block new and increased ferry tolls ordered by the legislature in the state budget, and a House panel voted to seek an opinion from Attorney General Roy Cooper.
"We've enacted a budget that requires tolls to be established," Gerry Cohen, director of the legislature's bill drafting staff, told the House transportation appropriations subcommittee today. "And in my opinion, the governor is bound by the constitution to administer the budget as enacted and does not have any authority for a moratorium on its provisions."
The Republican-controlled legislature adopted a budget last year that included a directive for new tolls on two ferry routes that are now toll-free and for increased rates on three routes where tolls are collected. The new tolls were supposed to take effect April 1.
Citing economic hardship in coastal counties, Perdue, a Democrat, announced last month a one-year moratorium on collection of the news tolls. Perdue said state law gives DOT the discretion to set and collect tolls.
Cohen cited a rewrite of that law and several provisions in the budget law that explicitly order the new tolls and that require DOT to increase ferry toll collection revenues by $2 million this year.
Officials in Perdue's DOT this week said they had set the new toll rates as ordered by the legislature but would delay implementing them as ordered by Perdue. Cohen rejected that distinction.
"You can't establish the tolls and not collect them and still meet the mandate to collect the revenue," he said.
Former state Rep. Pryor Gibson, now on Perdue's staff, told the subcommittee that Perdue had acted after receiving mixed advice on her power to block the tolls.
"There were conflicting legal opinions, but the governor felt fully authorized to issue this executive order," Gibson said.
Phillip Frye, a Republican from Avery County who chairs the subcommittee, has previously expressed doubts about Perdue's authority to block the tolls and criticized her move. He had requested Cohen's opinion and proposed seeking the Attorney General's opinion.