A plan to sharply limit Gov.-elect Roy Cooper’s appointment powers cleared a state House Thursday evening in a 70-36 vote along party lines, despite objections from a state employees’ group and Democrats.
House Bill 17 had been introduced Wednesday evening, one of several measures to curb Cooper’s power moving quickly through the legislature’s special session. The House Rules Committee approved the bill earlier Thursday in a voice vote after a short meeting and public hearing, with Democrats voting no.
The bill would make the governor’s Cabinet appointments subject to approval by the state Senate and cut his ability to appoint members to UNC schools’ boards of trustees.
Another provision would cut the number of employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure from 1,500 to 300, reversing an expansion that legislators approved for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory at the start of his term. It would prevent the governor from having any such employees in the state’s budget office and human resources office.
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“We have worked to modernize state government and the high number of exemptions, not used by the current governor, are being restored to a number and level that is consistent with the authority granted to past administrations,” said House Rules Chairman David Lewis, who sponsored the bill.
The 300-employee cap is less than the 400 state workers that served at the governor’s pleasure under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. And McCrory has actually used much of his current appointment power, with about 1,400 positions currently designated as exempt from civil service protections.
Michael Byrne, a state personnel law attorney who spoke during the public hearing, said the change in exempt positions goes too far.
“For principles of sound personnel administration, whether the person is a Democrat or Republican, the governor needs sufficient people who report to him or her to support his or her agenda,” Byrne said. “I submit that 600 is a more reasonable number – 1,500 was frankly too many.”
The State Employees Association of North Carolina, or SEANC, is also opposing the bill. The group’s lobbyist said the legislature shouldn’t strip the governor’s powers to appoint employees at the Office of State Human Resources.
“I think it would be terrible precedent and have disastrous consequences for employees,” Ardis Watkins told House members at the public hearing. “The employees rely on the governor to appoint (HR leaders).They can hold that governor accountable.”
Rep. Darren Jackson, a Knightdale Democrat, said he’s particularly concerned about a provision in the bill that could turn reclassify workers who serve at the governor’s pleasure to career state employees.
“Technically, (McCrory) could appoint someone in one of these jobs today and they could serve until the end of the year, and then they’re treated as a career state employees,” Jackson said.
Jackson also said the GOP’s plan for Cooper’s cabinet appointees to face Senate confirmation is confusing. Cooper takes office on Jan. 1, but the legislature won’t return to Raleigh for several weeks after that – so would appointees tentatively take office or would agency leadership posts stay vacant for weeks?
“Unfortunately a lot of things, we were told by staff, are not addressed in the bill and are subject to legal opinions down the road,” he said.
Lewis defended the proposed Senate confirmation process, noting that the state constitution specifically allows it, but legislators ended the practice years ago. He said the process would help the legislature “work with and communicate with the governor and the governor’s cabinet selections.”
HB17 also strips the governor of the ability to appoint members to the UNC system schools’ boards of trustees. Currently, the governor appoints two of the up to 30 board of trustees members at each of the UNC system’s 17 campuses. Under the bill, the House speaker and the Senate leader would each get one more appointment to each board.
The bill includes a number of changes to education oversight authority, shifting more power to the superintendent of public instruction. Starting in January, that position will be held by Republican Mark Johnson, who defeated longtime incumbent Democrat June Atkinson in November’s election.
One provision transfers administration of public schools and the state Department of Public Instruction from the State Board of Education to the state schools superintendent.
HB17 now heads to the Senate, where it will likely get a vote on Friday. McCrory’s office has not responded to questions about whether he’d sign the bill before leaving office.