Gov. Roy Cooper’s expanding legal challenges of laws the General Assembly passed to limit his powers just before he took office didn’t darken the mood as lawmakers started their work for the year.
State legislators returned to Raleigh on Wednesday for a brief ceremonial and organizational event to mark the start of the 2017 legislative session before taking a legally required two-week break. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore each were easily re-elected for another two-year term in leadership, and no other candidates were nominated. Family members joined lawmakers as they took their oaths of office.
But a clash with the new Democratic governor looms over the session. Late Tuesday, Cooper amended a lawsuit he previously filed to include additional constitutional claims.
Cooper’s actions take up where his predecessor left off, fighting the legislature’s attempts to exert its powers over the executive branch. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory successfully sued legislative leaders over his ability to oversee and appoint executive boards and commissions.
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Berger, whose son swore him in and whose granddaughter sang the National Anthem, was reluctant to talk about Cooper’s lawsuit. But the Senate leader acknowledged the legislature’s relationship with the state’s governor will change now that McCrory is out of office.
“We’re in a little bit different environment,” he said, adding that the GOP-controlled legislature faced a Democratic governor in 2011 when Bev Perdue was in office.
“There are a lot of times there are disagreements about this, that, the other thing. But we have to work together. I think we will. I know I’m committed to doing that,” said Berger, an Eden Republican.
House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters he thinks lawmakers will have a good relationship with Cooper. But he defended the legislature’s two special-session laws that limited the governor’s power.
“There’s always a healthy competition for influence among the branches,” he said. “I’ve always felt like the legislative branch, being closest to the people, is the one that ought to be moving the agenda for North Carolina more than perhaps some of the others.”
Lawsuit over appointees
Cooper, in his expanded lawsuit filed in Wake County Superior Court, says the legislature took radical and unprecedented steps to deprive him of some executive branch authority. Parts of the new laws infringe on the executive authority guaranteed him by the state constitution, he contends.
Cooper had sued over one provision that would combine the elections and ethics boards into a single agency and would restructure membership in the newly consolidated state board as well as county election boards.
A judge has temporarily blocked the law from taking effect while the lawsuit is under consideration, leaving in place a system that gives control of elections boards to the governor’s party. Berger previously criticized Cooper’s move, saying the law would create a more bipartisan system for elections.
The expanded lawsuit challenges the legislature’s action to make the governor’s Cabinet appointments subject to Senate confirmation. The constitution provides for the Senate to give “advice and consent” in certain circumstances. But Cooper contends that doesn’t apply to Cabinet appointments.
Further, Cooper’s suit challenges a provision that allowed the appointment of the spouse of McCrory’s chief of staff, Yolanda Stith, to the state Industrial Commission for an unusually long nine-year term.
“The legislature’s action during last year’s special session was an unprecedented effort to interfere with the governor’s ability to work on behalf of all North Carolinians and this legal action seeks to overturn it,” Cooper’s spokeswoman. Noelle Talley, said in a statement Tuesday night.
Cooper wants a judge to stop the consolidation of the elections and ethics boards, and do away with the Senate confirmation provision. The suit also challenges a section of the new law that immediately provided personnel protections to 1,075 of the 1,500 employees who had been exempt from those protections, ensuring that Cooper couldn’t replace them with people of his choosing.
The legislature slashed the number of political appointees that Cooper could have from 1,500 to 425.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed