The mission of the N.C. Department of Transportation is “connecting people, products and places safely and efficiently with customer focus, accountability and environmental sensitivity to enhance the economy and vitality of North Carolina.”
The goal of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is to be the “leader in using the state’s natural and cultural resources to build the social, cultural, educational and economic future of North Carolina.”
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is charged with managing “the delivery of health- and human-related services for all North Carolinians, especially our most vulnerable citizens – children, elderly, disabled and low-income families.”
The websites of these three agencies are clear on the central focus of each agency. That’s why it was surprise to some to find those agencies joining Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications staff and re-election campaign in sending out press releases and posting to social media a pro-McCrory Q&A about the highly controversial House Bill 2.
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The General Assembly passed and the governor signed that bill recently. Among other things, it nullified a Charlotte ordinance that sought to protect gay, lesbian and transgender residents and visitors from discrimination.
These agencies wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with transgender bathrooms or gay and lesbian rights. I’m not sure why they felt the need to distribute McCrory’s talking points on such a divisive topic.
McCrory, a Republican, is in a heated battle for governor with Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat. The governor’s office press staff has said the governor wants to set the record straight on House Bill 2 “to counter a coordinated national effort to mislead the public, intimidate our business community and slander our state.”
But something seems odd about cabinet agencies responsible for building roads, promoting historic sites and serving the state’s least fortunate disseminating the governor’s talking points on House Bill 2. Many Facebook posts and Twitter reactions from average citizens would attest to that.
But Robert Joyce, a lawyer on the faculty of the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he believes the creation and dissemination of the governor’s point of view on House Bill 2 was “perfectly lawful and reasonable.”
It’s “government speech” that’s recognized by the courts, he said.
State law prohibits state employees, like the communications staff of cabinet agencies, from engaging in political activity while on duty or otherwise using their positions, state funds, supplies or vehicles to support or oppose election candidates.
But Joyce said he didn’t see the Q&A as a “Vote for Jones-type document,” but rather as one that gives information to citizens about House Bill 2 from McCrory’s perspective.
At some point, Joyce added, a line would be crossed between serving a public purpose and using public resources to advance McCrory’s candidacy, but Joyce doesn’t believe that line was crossed here.
Even if it’s legal, it’s still somewhat fishy that agencies tasked with maintaining roads, protecting the environment and serving low-income residents would blindly follow the governor’s lead on an issue unrelated to their missions that clearly has divided North Carolina residents and businesses.
Do we now have to wonder whether anything those agencies do or promote is because the governor told them to or because it’s in the best interest of all North Carolina residents?
Patrick Gannon is editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.