RALEIGH — The state’s GOP-dominated legislature and Republican governor would have a free hand to sweep out all the members of several key boards and commissions and replace them with their own appointments, under a bill advanced Tuesday.
The legislation surfaced unexpectedly in the Senate Rules Committee attached to an innocuous bill eliminating certain boards and commissions for efficiencies. Over objections from Democrats, the committee approved provisions to replace and in some cases downsize the membership on the state Utilities Commission, the Industrial Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission and others.
Senate Bill 10 represents another front in the Republican campaign to streamline and loosen regulations. A House committee will begin Wednesday compiling lists of rules and regulations that they want repealed. This bill, if enacted, would give the General Assembly control over how its laws are interpreted. The bill would solidify GOP control over how much people pay for electricity, what environmental protections are in place and how fairly employees are treated. Environmental groups were quick to criticize the move as a partisan power grab.
Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Southport, told the committee the legislation would allow the boards and commissions to be run by appointees who “are more like-minded and willing to carry out the philosophy of the new administration.”
However, the bill would take away some of the governor’s appointments and give them to the General Assembly.
Rabon said the downsizing and elimination of some boards and commissions would save $2 million every year.
But Senate Democrats on the committee objected, saying the state would lose years of expertise and carefully balanced membership.
“This is quite breathtaking in scope,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat.
“As much as I’d love to – if we ever get back in – eliminate members of the General Assembly, I think there’s something to be said for continuity,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, said in the meeting.
Nesbitt and Stein repeatedly asked Rabon what the incumbent board members had done so wrong that they deserved to be fired. Rabon said it wasn’t about job performance, but it was the kind of streamlining that both parties have done several times over the years. He said it wouldn’t be fair to pick and choose which members would lose their positions when a board is downsized; rather, it makes sense to start from scratch. But not all the targeted commissions would be shrunk. The bill did not originate with the governor’s office, Rabon said after the meeting. The governor’s office declined to comment.
The appointments are not merely ceremonial. Most of the boards and commissions covered in the bill make important, far-reaching decisions. Many of their members were appointed when the Democrats controlled both the legislature and the governor’s office.
The Utilities Commission is the oldest regulatory panel in the state, and some say the most powerful. This year the commission will hear and decide rate increase requests filed by Duke Energy and its subsidiary Progress Energy.
It also oversees rates and service for electric utilities, natural gas utilities, in-state moving companies, as well as sewer and water, telephone, bus and ferry service. Commissioners are paid about $125,000 a year, and the chairman close to $140,000.
Gov. Pat McCrory worked 29 years for Duke Energy and now has the authority to appoint all of the members of the Utilities Commission as the positions become vacant. Otherwise, his appointees would not achieve a majority of four seats until 2015. The commission currently has one vacancy, two more opening this summer and a fourth in 2015. All current members were appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue or Gov. Mike Easley, both Democrats.
Some activist groups have already urged McCrory to recuse himself from making appointments to the Utilities Commission. McCrory has said he will appoint regulators who see themselves as providing a customer service to the companies they regulate.
Environmental groups were appalled at Tuesday’s development.
“This is an unwarranted and ruthless attack on environmental boards and commissions whose job it is to serve the public,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.
Diggins said many of the positions on the environmental boards targeted in the bill would be coming open in the coming months anyway, and that this legislation would be disruptive.
“These legislators were sent to Raleigh to create jobs and to help our struggling economy,” said Dan Crawford of the N.C. League of Conservation Voters. “The majority party wants to allow corporate special interests to write their own rules without public input. The people of North Carolina deserve better.”
Beside boards and commissions, the bill would eliminate 12 special superior court judges. A provision to expand the state Supreme Court by two justices was originally in the bill but Republican legislators withdrew it, saying it would come up later.
The bill now heads to the Senate floor for a vote, possibly as early as Wednesday.
Staff writer John Murawski contributed.