Under the Dome

Dome: Budget gives DOT some legal aid

From Staff ReportsJuly 25, 2013 

Legislative leaders decided this week that the state Department of Transportation needs help – more help than it is getting from the state Attorney General’s Office – in fighting environmental lawsuits that have stalled road and bridge projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The $20.6 billion budget approved Wednesday includes a provision authorizing DOT to bypass the Attorney General and hire “private counsel with the pertinent expertise to timely defend or otherwise resolve legal challenges” to DOT projects.

This help may not come soon enough to clear the environmental challenges that have prevented DOT from breaking ground on a $215 million replacement for the Oregon Inlet bridge, the Garden Parkway toll road in Gaston County ($843 million) and the Monroe Bypass toll road in Union County ($725 million). But it might give DOT more muscle to fend off expected challenges to other turnpike plans – including the Triangle Expressway extension through sensitive wetlands in southern Wake County and the Mid-Currituck Bridge for Outer Banks tourists.

DOT’s chief antagonist in most of these cases is the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center. Julie White, who follows the legislature for the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, joked in an email newsletter for big-city mayors that this is the budget’s “SELC provision.”

SELC lawyers may have been flattered, but they responded with a harrumph.

“If you comply with the law, you don’t need to worry about a lawsuit stopping or slowing down a project,” said Derb S. Carter Jr., who heads SELC’s Chapel Hill office. “The most efficient way for DOT, and the cheapest way for saving taxpayers’ money, is to do it right the first time.”

Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said her agency has “generally opposed shifting litigation authority away from the Attorney General’s Office.”

Dara Demi, a DOT spokeswoman, said DOT welcomed the prospect of extra help but had not requested it.

Permission to enter

An impromptu change to the House rules Thursday has upset some Democrats.

The new rule says no one can enter a lawmaker’s office without permission. It doesn’t apply to certain legislative staff, including cleaning and law enforcement, and provides an exception for the Rules Committee Chairman who enters with a legislative employee.

It came about after a few Democrats entered Speaker Thom Tillis’ personal office to deliver a petition calling for a stop to the abortion bill. The incident that prompted the rule change was first reported by WRAL-TV. When the lawmakers put the petition on his desk, they took a photo – which hit Twitter and caused a sharp reaction from Republicans who considered it an intrusion.

In a statement, Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher of Asheville, one of the lawmakers involved, said the doors to the outer and inner office were open and no staffers were present, so they placed the petition on Tillis’ desk.

Fisher shot back against critics saying the rule change “is the only response we’ve received from Speaker Tillis. That is truly disappointing,” she said.

Coble back in the House

U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, was back on the House floor Thursday after spending two days in a D.C. hospital after hernia surgery.

Doctors discharged the 82-year-old Greensboro Republican Thursday morning.

Staff writers Bruce Siceloff and John Frank

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