The Republicans at the helm of the General Assembly have taken numerous steps to clip Gov. Roy Cooper’s wings since the Democrat won election to the executive office.
The budget rolled out this week attempts to further limit his office, by cutting nearly $1 million in funding, moving oversight of a commission and a grant program that had been in his purview to Republican-led offices, and limiting his ability to hire private attorneys to help challenge their legislation in court.
Included in the budget are:
▪ Provisions that make all state government agencies get authorization from the General Assembly to hire private counsel;
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▪ Prohibitions against the use of lapsed salary proceeds to pay private attorneys;
▪ Changes that call for the state attorney general, an elected post held by Democrat Josh Stein, to represent the lawmakers when they are sued. But they cut his budget by $10 million in targeted line items that Stein says will force him to lay off 123 full-time employees, many of whom are attorneys on his staff.
▪ Provisions that allow the leaders of the General Assembly chambers to decide whether to defend actions against them, as well as whether to hire private counsel to represent them, attorneys who would take the lead even if the state attorney general also was to provide counsel in the case.
Since Republicans gained control of both General Assembly chambers in 2011, key provisions of the sharp political swing to the right have been challenged in state and federal court.
The legislators have been upheld on three of the challenges — on using public funds for private school vouchers, a law that allows specialty “Right to Choose” license plates but not the other pro-choice viewpoint and an extra-territorial jurisdiction issue in Boone.
They have been overturned on many more high-profile challenges, such as redistricting cases, an election law overhaul that included a voter ID provision and an attempt to change the way sitting Supreme Court justices run for re-election.
According to an April fiscal research report to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, the General Assembly has spent $12.6 million on outside counsel to represent the legislature in these cases. In some of the cases, the counsel represented the legislative leadership along with counsel from the state attorney general’s office, which was under the leadership of Cooper at the time.
“Since gaining a majority, legislative Republicans have had more than a dozen unconstitutional laws overturned by the courts,” Ford Porter, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement this week. “In response, they appear intent on dismantling checks and balances in state government. In addition to a legislative assault on the courts, Republicans are now attempting to rig the system by limiting the executive branch’s ability to challenge unconstitutional laws. Governor Cooper will continue to stand up for North Carolinians against unconstitutional laws.”
Since Cooper was elected in November, he has brought three lawsuits against the General Assembly leadership.
Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville who is a key budget writer, said the provisions in the budget limiting the hiring of private counsel were motivated by budget priorities, not politics.
“What the governor has been doing is taking money out of different pots that have been allocated for other things.” Brown said. “I think it just makes it transparent. If he needs that outside counsel, he’s got the attorney general’s office he can go to. It just kind of cleans it.”
With Democrat Cooper the attorney general, Republican Pat McCrory hired private attorneys to represent him in some of the higher-profile lawsuits while he was in the governor’s office and similar provisions were not in place.
Additionally, the budget:
▪ Transfers the state Industrial Commission from under the control of an agency in Cooper’s Cabinet to the elected insurance commissioner, a position currently held by a Republican.
The Industrial Commission hears disputes filed by injured workers. It is currently in the Department of Commerce, which is a Cabinet agency under Cooper’s control. The budget would move the commission to the Department of Insurance, which is headed by Mike Causey.
▪ Provides $300,000 for the Industrial Commission to hire private legal counsel for litigation brought by Cooper related to last year’s merger of the state elections and ethics boards. The merger was in a bill that included the appointment of Yolanda Stith, wife of former Gov. McCrory’s chief of staff, to fill a vacancy on the Industrial Commission for an extended term.
▪ Moves an education grant program from the governor’s office to the state Department of Public Instruction, which is headed by an elected Republican superintendent, Mark Johnson. The Education and Workforce Innovation Commission is budgeted to receive $6.2 million.
Republicans have praised and characterized the $23.03 billion budget as one that addresses the needs of the state while controlling spending.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said the budget continues Republican policies that he touts as helping the state economy grow. The spending plan, he said during the Senate floor debate, “strikes an appropriate balance between those funds that rightfully should go to state government to fund those obligations and the money that really ought to stay in the hands of the people that earned it.”
Cooper, though, has been highly critical of the spending plan.
When asked about the cuts to his office on Tuesday, Cooper said: “I’m keeping my eye on the big picture. What I am worried about is the fact that this budget has provided tax giveaways for those who have, instead of investing in education. I’m sure that’s political spite or something. I’m keeping my eye on making sure our budget for our state has vision and invests in education, and this budget does not do that.”