The first day of 2017 was one that had been decades in the making for Roy Cooper, who wasted little time in the new year before being sworn in as governor Sunday, just after the new year started.
And in the next few days, North Carolinians will also know more about the people Cooper wants to help run the state for the next four years. But later on Sunday, Cooper’s staff was still tight-lipped about who his appointees for Cabinet positions and other state leadership posts might be.
“I think we’ll start announcing names (Monday) and through the week,” said Ken Eudy, who is Cooper’s senior adviser in the new administration.
Eudy said Cooper was spending the day on the phone finalizing details with a few potential appointees – and that once they notify their current employers, the names will start to be made public.
Cooper has no shortage of contacts in state government circles. He joined the legislature in 1987 and has been attorney general the past 16 years. The Democrat defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in a tight election that focused on the state’s LGBT law and education funding.
Some state departments already have their leaders, since they’re elected positions. Those include the departments of Labor and Justice and the State Treasurer’s Office.
Departments still awaiting a leader to be named by Cooper include Commerce, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Environmental Quality and Public Safety.
The budget as a message
Cooper also has yet to name other high-level positions, including budget director. One of the key ways a governor can signal priorities and suggest changes is by producing an annual budget.
While the legislature ultimately creates and passes the state budget – subject to a governor’s veto, like any other state law – the governor’s budget can indicate to lawmakers what is or isn’t important to the governor.
In the final days of his term, McCrory published his own recommended budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, even though he won’t be in office anymore. Eudy said finishing the budget and making it public is high on the priority list. The new budget year starts in July.
“There’s no statutory deadline (for the budget to be published),” Eudy said. “But he wants to have it sooner rather than later.”
Eudy did cite what he said are three issues Cooper sees as priorities, as well as possible areas for bipartisan cooperation: raising teacher pay, increasing access to health insurance and working “to put more money in the pockets of working North Carolinians.”
Eudy said he hopes both sides can agree on those goals, even if they debate how to best accomplish them.
“Those are issues Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to raise teacher pay?”
Cabinet confirmation conundrum
One area that could turn contentious from the start, on the other hand, is the appointment process for Cooper’s yet-unnamed Cabinet secretaries.
One of the new laws from a special session at the end of 2016 said that the 10 Cabinet appointees Cooper selects are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
The federal government operates that way, and the president’s Cabinet secretaries are almost always approved by the Senate, even despite party differences. But in North Carolina, it remains to be seen how much of a fight the Republican-controlled Senate will put up over Cooper’s picks, who presumably will be Democrats.
It’s also unclear what the confirmation process will consist of once it begins.
“Is it a background check?” Eudy asked. “Is it hearings? Is it private interviews? Is it constitutional?”
The law doesn’t give any answers, simply saying that “the appointment shall be subject to senatorial advice and consent.”
Senate leader Phil Berger’s office didn’t have answers either. Berger’s deputy chief of staff Amy Auth said that since it was Sunday and a holiday, she couldn’t immediately contact everyone needed to answer the questions about steps in the process.
Regardless of the answers, the law might soon be subject to a lawsuit – just like several other provisions of laws from the special session, when legislators stripped away some powers from Cooper and other Democrats.
“You remember what Cooper said the day they passed that? He said, ‘I’ll see you in court,’ ” Eudy said.
But Auth said “there’s no question on the constitutionality of the law” that requires the Senate confirmations.
“There has always been confirmation in North Carolina, but prior to this change in the law, candidates have been ‘deemed confirmed’ by statute since 1969,” Auth wrote in an email. “This new law makes clear that – just like the model used in Washington, D.C. – the governor appoints cabinet secretaries, and those appointees must be confirmed by the N.C. Senate before taking office.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran