RALEIGH — House Republicans stayed largely united Thursday while agreeing to their version of a Senate bill to sweep out more than 100 appointees to key state boards and regulatory commissions, a move Democrats call a GOP power play that will benefit special interests.
The proposal received tentative approval by a 70-42 vote, one day after committee debate revealed tensions among Republicans within the chamber and with Senate Republicans who initiated the recommended dismissals a few weeks ago.
The bill essentially fires most or all members of several commissions now or in the coming months, including the Coastal Resources Commission, state Lottery Commission and Wildlife Resources Commission. It makes way for new appointments to come from Republican legislative leaders and new GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. The size of many commissions also would be reduced.
It’s not often that lawmakers get the chance to actually reduce the size of government by ending positions historically used to reward political allies of the majority party or a governor, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.
“Now’s the time for this legislation. You only get the chance to do this sort of thing at the beginning of a new administration,” Dollar told colleagues. He added that the main qualifications for some of the positions “may well have been in contributions or participation in a previous governor’s election.”
But Democrats argued the bill would simply let Republicans and McCrory fill the positions with their own political friends. While board and commission adjustments by the General Assembly aren’t unusual, political observers say they can’t remember such wholesale changes.
“This is a bill that in its essence is an unprecedented power grab from the people of North Carolina,” said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham. But by canning commission members before their terms expires, he added, “prematurely we sacrifice their expertise and their institutional knowledge.”
Only two Republicans voted against the bill on the floor, joining all Democrats who were present Thursday.
Four GOP House members voted against the bill Wednesday in committee, with some saying the bill set a bad precedent. The measure made a brief stop in another committee Thursday morning and was changed to satisfy other GOP members by staggering the replacements of members on the Industrial Commission and state Utilities Commission.
The Utilities Commission, which also regulates telecommunications and natural gas rates, would be ultimately reduced from seven to five members, and current members would remain on the board for another two years. While Hall argued the panel ultimately could be stacked with people who are more focused on helping utilities rather than consumers, the legislature still must confirm members, all of whom are appointed by the governor. Utilities Commission members also are subject to state ethics laws.
To address complaints of lost expertise on technical regulatory panels, House Republicans also changed the Senate version of the bill so that four current members each of both the Coastal Resources Commission and Environmental Management Commission would remain on the job for a year or two.
A final House vote was expected Monday night before it returns to the Senate, where a key Republican expressed his anger in a House committee over changes.
Atop the senator’s list was the House’s decision to keep in place 12 special Superior Court judgeships the Senate wants to eliminate. These judges are appointed by governors and aren’t subject to elections like other judges.
Some House Republicans still registered public complaints Thursday about how their leaders ran the 27-page bill through two committees and a floor vote in less than 30 hours. While GOP lieutenants of House Speaker Thom Tillis provided official notice of debate, the public wouldn’t have found that announcement on a House calendar early Wednesday.
“I wish we’d be more careful with our power,” said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. “I have seen no reason why hearing the bill could not have waited until next week.”
House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, responded that Republican leaders “have followed the process the way it should be followed.”