RALEIGH — The resolve behind a central part of Republican legislators agenda this session making key state commissions more business-friendly and replacing the members with their own appointees was tested Wednesday when it ran into dissent from Republicans themselves.
House GOP members have a markedly different vision of the overhaul than their Senate counterparts, and even have conflicting ideas among themselves of what the far-reaching legislation should do.
The version of the bill the House Commerce and Job Development Committee approved faces an uncertain future. That became clear when committee chairman Rep. Tom Murry, a Republican from Cary, invited Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville and the bills primary sponsor, to weigh in on the changes at the beginning of the meeting.
I feel like the parent who sends their kid to college and comes home at Thanksgiving and you dont recognize them, Apodaca said. My God, what have you done to my child? This is not a good way to start the session.
Apodaca said he was particularly upset that the jobs of 12 special superior court judges would be spared.
Apodaca said it would be a waste of time to talk about it further, and strode from the meeting room.
The Senate had zipped the bill through its chamber in three days, but the legislation has been scrutinized by staff for Murrys committee for the past two weeks. It is scheduled to be heard by the House Rules Committee on Thursday. If the full House eventually approves it, the bill will be sent to a conference committee where Republican senators and representatives will try to agree on some form of the bill.
A few Republicans voted against the bill in the House committee, including some who had offered amendments that were defeated. Democrats are generally opposed to the bill, calling it a power grab, but do not have enough votes to make a difference in the final outcome except in incremental ways. The Republicans control both houses of the legislature, and now have a Republican governor. Many of the commissioners that the Senate bill would oust were appointed when the Democrats were in power.
Senate Bill 10 had been criticized for weakening environmental protections along the coast with its provisions to allow more business-oriented commissioners who dont have to live in North Carolina, let alone on the coast, and for loosening conflict-of-interest precautions. The provision to eliminate the special superior court judges was criticized as potentially unconstitutional.
But all that is up in the air now.
Gone for now is the provision that would eliminate the judges, who are appointed by the governor and hear cases throughout the state, filling in when local judges need help. The bill is part of a Republican plan to replace them with locally elected judges.
One Republican senator had said on the Senate floor that the judges werent spending enough time on the bench and so werent working hard. But a memo by the General Assemblys fiscal research division shows something to the contrary.
It found the special judges spend about seven hours a week on the bench they spend the rest of their time working in chambers or traveling while elected judges spend about eight hours a week on the bench. The 12 judges handle about 10 percent of all the cases heard by the states 112 superior court judges, the memo says.
Also rewritten is the provision that would remake the state Coastal Resources Commission and the Environmental Management Commission. The latest version of the bill would restore some of the scientific expertise currently required of members, along with the requirement that members live in North Carolina and either reside or own property along the coast.
Instead of sweeping everyone out, it would permit four current members of the Coastal Resources Commission to continue serving until the middle of next year. Instead of reducing the commission from 15 to 11 members, it would set the commission at 13 members, nine appointed by the governor and four by the General Assembly.
The proposal would also restore the prohibition on conflict-of-interest by restricting commissioners income from development and real estate, and would clarify ethics requirements.
Environmentalists and others welcomed those changes, but were dismayed that the Utilities Commission would be remade into a business-oriented panel. The Senate version of the bill would have simply replaced the current commission members and reduced its size from seven to five. The House committee proposal would have protected the current Utilities Commission from any changes, but an amendment in the committee put it back in.
Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton, succeeded in restoring the Senates limit on the Utilities Commission to five members appointed by the governor, and added the requirement that all of them must have backgrounds in utilities law and regulation, economics, finance, accounting and business administration. But Republican Majority Leader Edgar Starnes of Hickory said he didnt agree that utilities commissioners needed that kind of background.
If theres anything thats not broke in North Carolina its our Utilities Commission, Starnes said.
A couple of Republican committee members said they were having a hard time choosing between their colleagues positions.
Hager is a former Duke Energy employee, as is Gov. Pat McCrory, and the fact that the Republicans are trying to remake the Utilities Commission at the same time Duke is seeking a rate increase drew criticism.
The scope of conflicts of interest are staggering, said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress N.C. in a statement. Whats clear is that our leaders in Raleigh care more about protecting one big business, a major campaign contributor, than they do about millions of hard-working taxpayers, individual consumers and small businesses.
Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, expressed the same concerns. She thanked the committee for restoring the scientific expertise requirements and allowing some members of the coastal committees to continue. But she said the current members shouldnt be replaced until their terms expire.
The state Industrial Commission, which hears employee injury claims, also turned out to be a point of contention among Republicans. The bill version presented to the committee would have gone along with the Senate in sweeping out the incumbents and reducing the length of their terms, but it would have required that all members be lawyers.
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Valdese, unsuccessfully tried to spare the Industrial Commission from the proposed changes. He said the current commissioners should be allowed to serve out their terms for the same reason that the judges shouldnt be fired.
It sends the wrong message to suggest that we dont like a group of people making these judicial decisions at the Industrial Commission so were going to fire them all and appoint new people, he said.
Starnes agreed with him, but Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, said the Industrial Commission has a record of problems. Those problems were documented in stories in The News & Observer last year showing that the commission has long known some employers break the law by failing to buy workers compensation insurance but have rarely acted.
We have a serious problem at the Industrial Commission, Dollar said. We need to fix this commission.
Some new provisions are also added to the bill.
One would clear out the current members of the state parole commission and give the governor authority to appoint replacements. It would allow members of the new fracking board, the Mining & Energy Commission, to hold other public office in addition to the board.
It would allow the governor and not the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to appoint the chief administrative law judge, and it would authorize studying whether some state occupational licensing boards could be reduced or eliminated, and consider the creation of a single statewide licensing board.
Finally, it would restructure the State Personnel Commission, giving the General Assembly four appointments and the governor five. Currently, the governor has seven and the legislature two.