The state Industrial Commission used to rarely receive public attention. That has changed over the past couple of years. Now it is facing more uncertainty because of proposals in the General Assembly’s budgets that would remove the 22 deputy commissioners and subject them to political appointment.
Both the Senate and House budgets would allow for the removal of all current deputy commissioners over the next year and a half. Current incumbents could seek reappointment.
The Senate budget would set a four-year term for the deputies with a two-term limit. The House would set eight-year terms without limits. Both proposals would remove them from the protections of the State Personnel Act, making it easier to fire them.
The state’s trial attorneys’ organization and the N.C. Democratic Party say those changes could politicize the commission, which hears workers’ compensation cases and personal or property-damage claims against state agencies. It raises concerns that the deputy commissioners would be judged by the governing political party based on decisions they made in past cases, they say.
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While full commissioners tend to be political appointees, the deputy commissioners are usually career employees with expertise in specific areas.
"It is always a bad idea to politicize the justice system," N.C. Advocates for Justice President Danny Glover said in a recent statement. "Injured workers, employers and insurance companies all deserve to know that they will receive a full and fair hearing. Making the judges who hear Industrial Commission claims worry about their job security is a bad path for North Carolina."
Recently, Gov. Pat McCrory’s nomination of Charlton Allen to the commission, which was approved by the legislature, drew criticism because of what critics called his extreme political positions and past actions while a conservative activist at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Last year, the Senate tried to sweep out all the full commissioners in a bill that would have also replaced incumbents on numerous state boards. The bill languished, however.
At the time, lawmakers said targeting the Industrial Commission was partly in response to problems documented in stories in The News & Observer in 2012 showing the commission had long known some employers break the law by failing to buy workers’ comp insurance but had rarely acted.
Correction: McCrory, who took office in January 2013, has appointed two of the current six full commissioners — Allen and Chairman Drew Heath. A previous version of this post erroneously said he had appointed all six.
Commissioners serve six-year terms.