RALEIGH — Republican legislators cheered an opinion from the state attorney generals office Friday that Gov. Bev Perdue did not have the authority to block the collection of new and higher ferry tolls ordered by the legislature.
Perdue maintained that she was right, and the state Department of Transportation said it would not move to put the new toll rates in effect.
Perdue, a Democrat, ordered a one-year moratorium on the collection of the tolls in February, saying the fees would be an undue economic hardship in coastal North Carolina communities. Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature had ordered DOT to begin collecting the tolls starting April 1.
Coopers office sided with the legislature in an opinion issued Friday morning, saying Perdue had no authority to nullify the legislation. Perdue asserted Friday afternoon that her action was both legal and right. She said the Republican-led legislature should vote to overturn her moratorium if it wants to implement the tolls, as it voted to do last year.
The Governor believes her executive order is both legal and right, Chris Mackey, Perdues press secretary, said by email. The Governor issued her order because she doesnt think it is right to collect ferry taxes from working families in eastern North Carolina.
If the Republican leaders of the General Assembly are determined to collect the ferry tax, they can do it when they return to Raleigh in ten days. The Governors executive order clearly states that the General Assembly can vote to end the moratorium at any time, Mackey said.
Then the attorney generals office responded with a separate statement calling on the Perdue administration to yield.
It is our opinion that the state law as passed by the legislature must be followed, said the statement from a spokeswoman for Cooper, a Democrat. It was the legislatures decision to collect tolls and the legislature has the authority to remove them.
The legislature ordered tolls on two river ferries, used mostly by commuters, that now are toll-free. And it called for rate increases on three other ferry routes where passengers now pay tolls. DOT set the new toll rates in March, but did not begin collecting them, citing Perdues moratorium.
Also last month, Rep. Phillip Frye, an Avery County Republican who heads the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, asked Coopers office for an opinion on the legality of the moratorium.
In a letter received by Frye on Friday, Chief Deputy Attorney General Grayson Kelley said that a direct conflict between a law enacted by the General Assembly and an Executive Order issued by the Governor must be resolved through implementation of the law.
After the opinion was announced Friday morning at a transportation oversight committee meeting, Rep. Tim Spear, a Democrat from Washington County, proposed legislation to cancel the toll increases.
Some legislators, including Republican House leaders who favor the higher tolls, expressed sympathy with Spears argument that the increases should be postponed to give coastal residents more time to recover from Hurricane Irene and other economic setbacks.
I think we need to support our ferries by the user of the ferry, not the taxpayer, said Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican who championed the higher tolls. But I can buy the idea of not at this time.
A committee vote on Spears bill was scheduled for April 23.
DOT officials said Friday they were complying with Perdues Feb. 29 order, which stopped work on implementing the new tolls. If and when Perdues moratorium is lifted, it would take DOT about a month to finish construction of toll collection booths and complete other preparations before they could put the new tolls and higher toll rates into effect.
The legislature will convene for a brief session April 23 and again for its formal short session May 18.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/