RALEIGH — A dispute between House and Senate leaders reopened Thursday with two of Gov. Pat McCrory’s judicial appointees caught in the crossfire.
Republican lawmakers want to purge many state boards and commissions to remove Democrats and existing appointees and replace them with their allies, but the two chambers can’t agree on how far-reaching to make the overhaul.
The House and Senate approved vastly different measures earlier this session and traded harsh words about the disagreement. It all looked resolved when a conference committee struck a deal late Wednesday. But it dissolved in the daylight as the Senate voted Thursday to approve the measure and a unanimous House voted against it.
The divergent paths left a central part of the GOP’s legislative agenda facing near-death.
“We are not going back to the table on Senate bill 10,” said state Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican leading the effort. “I guess it’s dead. It will have to be done in different legislation. … Our people negotiated in good faith for weeks and thought we had it worked out.”
In the original version of the bill, the Senate proposed eliminating the special judges who travel the state and hear cases, filling in when local judges need help, with Republicans casting the positions as cushy political appointments.
The House kept the judges. The compromise bill eliminated most of the positions, but judges appointed before April 1 could fulfill their terms.
House Speaker Thom Tillis voiced objections about the deal ahead of the vote because it would void two special Superior Court judges named by the governor who have yet to take their seats. The Senate ignored the concerns and approved the bill along largely partisan lines, 32-18.
Rep. Tom Murry, a conference committee member, said House members did not understand the implications of the deal. “It didn’t mean what we thought it did,” the Morrisville Republican said. “It’s going to have to go back to the drawing board.”
The governor’s office refused to discuss the issue. “I’m not going to go into the particulars of the bill,” said Crystal Feldman, a spokeswoman. “The governor is waiting to see the final version passed out of the (General Assembly) before taking a position.”
Democrats and other critics delighted in the standoff. The measure remakes state boards that regulate power companies, oversee claims by injured workers, and set environmental standards.
“The bill remains a power grab that is going to be detrimental to the people of North Carolina,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat. “Our current system works. It allows for the governor, (Senate) president pro tem and (House) speaker to fill vacancies as they occur in their natural term. This allows us to have continuity.”
Environmental groups remained concerned about the final version because it fires members of the Environmental Management Commission, a primary rule-making authority. “That would make it very difficult for the commission to function efficiently in the public interest,” said Molly Diggins of the Sierra Club.