Vote on NC commissions bill reveals divisions

Feb. 27, 2013 @ 10:56 PM

House Republicans tinkered Wednesday with plans to terminate current members of several key North Carolina regulatory commissions, revealing disagreements with Senate counterparts and GOP members in their own chamber about how and where to clean house.

The House Commerce and Job Development Committee voted for a new version of a government reorganization bill that originated in the Senate, where Republicans said it would give new Gov. Pat McCrory the chance to place his choices on the panels early in his administration. Democrats call the bill a partisan power grab unseen in decades. McCrory's office said the Republican didn't ask for the legislation.

Like the Senate version, the House plan would essentially fire now or very soon members of the Coastal Resources Commission, Wildlife Resources Commission, Industrial Commission and other panels, which are mostly filled with Democratic appointments. Some commission memberships also would be reduced and the number of appointments a governor or legislative leaders receive would be changed. About a dozen outdated boards and commissions also would be abolished.

"It's the House's effort to make this a real responsible way to reform some important boards and commissions, to make them more functional, to reflect the values of this body, and to really help us do the job that we were elected to do," said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg.

But the House version allows a few commission members to remain on the job for another year or two to ensure the panels don't lose expertise in such areas as coastal and environmental regulation.

And it leaves out a Senate provision that would have eliminated 12 Special Superior Court judgeships this summer that Senate Democrats suggest aren't pulling their own weight in the courtroom while making $126,000 annually.

Some questioned whether eliminating the judgeships was unconstitutional. Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, the committee chairman, said there was conflicting information about the judges' workload. Another House committee was slated to consider the bill Thursday.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, a bill sponsor, sounded exasperated by the House's decision, especially for retaining many judges who were last-minute appointments by departing Democratic governors. These judges also aren't subject to elections.

"This is not a good way to start the session," said Apodaca, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, suggesting a difficult negotiating process awaits both chambers. "This is nothing like what we sent over, so I'd be wasting the House's time if I spoke about it."

The measure didn't have full support of House Republicans, either, as four GOP committee members voted no while the measure passed 34-24. First-term Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said he voted no because he believed such a bill should allow future new governors and legislators should have the same right to clean out commissions, not just now.

Republicans also disagreed publicly over amendments involving the Industrial Commission, which rules on workers' compensation claims, and the Utilities Commission, which regulates telecommunications, electric and natural gas markets.

The House version of the bill initially eliminated a Senate provision to fire Utilities Commission members and reduce its membership from seven to five people.

But the committee approved in a close voice vote an amendment by Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, that would re-establish the membership reduction, end current terms for four members June 30 and require appointees to have experience in areas such as utility regulations, economics or business.

Hager, a former Duke Energy engineer, said commissioners should have expertise to handle complex cases, such as determining rate increases for power companies. But others said the current system works fine. Commissioners still must be confirmed by the General Assembly, which decides whether the appointee is qualified, said House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell.

"If there's anything that's not broken in North Caroilna, it's our Utilities Commission," Starnes said.

Environmentalist groups said Wednesday they were less displeased with the House version of the bill in part because conflict-of-interest requirements were restored to the members of environmental regulatory panels.

The House version added provisions to dismiss all members of the state parole commission and to mandate the staggered termination of current State Personnel Commission members.

Democrats and their allies have held news conferences in recent weeks trashing the proposed firings. But owing to their new minority status in state government, they are largely helpless to stop them.

"I still feel like I'm in shock," said Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, adding the bill smacks of "a partisan sort of opportunism."