The exchange of letters between legislative leaders and Gov. Roy Cooper over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline continued Friday as lawmakers expressed exasperation with a response provided a day earlier by the governor’s chief of staff.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, chairmen of the House and Senate rules committees, respectively, resubmitted questions to Chief of Staff Kristi Jones and added a few more. The lawmakers said Jones had failed to respond adequately to queries they posed Feb. 12 to Lee Lilley, Cooper’s legislative liaison.
“These are not difficult or complex questions, so hopefully, the third time will be the charm,” the letter said.
The agreement, signed Jan. 25 by Cooper attorney William McKinney, set the framework for a $57.8-million payment from the four utilities operating the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to an escrow fund controlled by Cooper. According to the deal, the fund would pay for environmental mitigation, economic development, and renewable energy projects in the eight counties affected by the massive natural gas pipeline.
But that agreement included few details. And it raised a host of questions from lawmakers, outside experts, and the media about a discretionary fund, controlled by the governor and handled outside the normal legislative spending process.
Lilley, a former lobbyist for pipeline operator Dominion Power, had faced a barrage of questions related to the pipeline deal during a Feb. 8 meeting of the House and Senate appropriations committees. Jones sent her response Thursday on Cooper’s behalf, largely restating positions he had offered piecemeal through spokesmen and in a Feb. 14 press conference.
Jones said the pipeline fund was not connected to the approval of permits for the pipeline. The fund wouldn’t be controlled by Cooper but instead administered by a board similar to the ones managing two other state grantmaking agencies, the Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, she added. And, in a swipe at the legislature, she said the passage of House Bill 90, a measure diverting the $57.8-million offer from the pipeline to school districts in the affected counties, may wind up killing the agreement.
The General Assembly’s Friday reaction was pointed. The Lewis-Rabon letter broke out quotes from Jones’ letter that seemed to respond to individual questions and left others Jones did not address blank.
Then they posed seven new queries:
• Exactly when in 2017 did pipeline negotiations begin?
• How does Jones’ statement that Cooper was never expected to be in charge of the fund square with the clear language of the agreement, which places the governor or his proxies in control?
• Have the pipeline operators threatened to withdraw from the fund, or would Cooper get the money and choose not to spend it on poor, rural school districts?
• Why doesn’t the governor think boosting education spending in poor counties would eventually help economic development there?
• Did anyone connected to the governor or the executive branch ask Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, to retract an earlier statement that the funding deal was connected to approving permits for the pipeline?
• Why did Cooper suggest the Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund as models to distribute the pipeline money when he has named both agencies in court filings as unconstitutional because they do not give the governor enough appointment powers?
• Who does Cooper expect to pay for the pipeline fund: shareholders or ratepayers? Lawmakers say he has suggested either may be on the hook.
The Lewis-Rabon letter demanded a full response no later than Monday, Feb. 19.