A hanging ax over NC air and water regulators

September 3, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory signaled early on with his now-famous “seat warmers” line about state employees that he planned to get tough on underpaid, often-overworked state workers. Now it appears he’s ready to take on those who do their jobs too well. And if environmental regulators are out of their seats too much, they may find themselves out of their jobs as well.

What a transparent exercise in the abuse of power is McCrory’s use of authority granted him by Republicans in the General Assembly to make more state workers “at will” employees. That means they will not have civil service protections against being unjustly fired. This is nothing more than manipulation of the people’s government for the political aggrandizement of the governor and his political cronies. It is quite the strange move from a governor who campaigned against the government he said was corrupted by politics.

The governor’s office argues that the governor needs this change to make sure employees are on board with his mission so that he can shape his agenda.

Uh, huh. Anyone want to price a bridge in Brooklyn?

What’s really going on is evidenced by the fact that, in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the number of at-will jobs is expanding from 24 to 167. DENR has long been a favorite target of Republicans who would like to gut most environmental regulations so business, specifically developers, can do as they wish with coastal property or with other big projects that now have to pass permit muster and comply with 22oversight.

Republican lawmakers have tried to legislate regulators right out of their jobs.

But now they’ll be able to demand that individuals urging more caution in a development or even denying permits because of threats to water and air resources be fired – just because they can be. Former DENR Secretary Bill Holman said there was “relentless pressure” on regulators from those they regulate, and many of the “regulated” have friends in high places. McCrory and the Republicans have now made it easier for pressure to be brought to bear.

DENR Secretary John Skvarla tried to reassure employees that he values their expertise and said it would be foolish to try to engage in “wholesale” replacements. But his subordinate, Tom Reeder, told water resources employees that the legislature was watching them and that their jobs could be at risk.

Though other departments also have more at-will employees thanks to the governor – a big increase at Health and Human Services also is worrisome – the most likely place that will feel an immediate effect will be DENR, where Republicans would probably like to do away with many regulations.

This inevitably will have serious consequences. When air and water are fouled, they can be ruined for good. When health regulations are reduced, safety can be also. It is always better to be cautious than reckless when it comes to regulating. And it’s chilling to think that state employees, loyal employees, now can be fired – for doing their jobs.

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