UPDATE, Friday, 3:55 p.m.: The General Assembly adjourned sine die around 3:45 p.m.
UPDATE, Friday, 3:09 p.m.: The House agreed to a slightly modified version of House Bill 17, sending Gov. Pat McCrory the bill reshuffling the powers of the executive and legislative branches. The most significant change made Friday to the bill increased the number of political appointees Gov.-elect Roy Cooper could appoint from the original 300 to 425.
A move to rein in the appointment powers of Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper moved swiftly through the GOP-controlled House on Thursday with almost no debate in committee before it reached the full House for approval.
House Bill 17 would invoke a constitutional power to require Senate confirmation of all the governor’s Cabinet secretaries. It would reduce from 1,500 to 300 the number of state employees exempt from the North Carolina Human Resources Act — in other words, slashing the number of political appointees Cooper could place in executive branch agencies. It would strip the governor of the authority to appoint members of the board of trustees in the UNC system, giving them instead to legislative leaders. Finally, it would realign powers and duties among the superintendent of public instruction and the State Board of Education. (See related story here.)
“This bill is a good step forward in reasserting legislative authority vested by the Constitution and entrusted to members of this body,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the sponsor of the bill, told the House.
The move follows the Nov. 8 election in which Cooper defeated incumbent GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. Also in November, Republican Mark Johnson defeated incumbent Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson. The governor also appoints most members of the State Board of Education.
House debate on the bill was stalled for more than a half hour when protesters in the gallery began shouting. After protesters failed to heed a request from House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, to remain orderly, the gallery was cleared.
Republicans insisted the goal of the bill is to beef up powers that have drifted over the years from the legislative branch of government to the executive branch.
Lewis pointed to a recent lawsuit McCrory filed and won against the General Assembly challenging the makeup of a commission to oversee cleanup from coal ash ponds. The governor’s victory fundamentally changed the way the legislative and executive branches in government work together, Lewis said. “It strengthened the office of the governor at the expense of the legislature,” Lewis said.
Democrats, however, argued that the changes were being made by the Republican legislature because their party lost the governor’s race to Democrat Cooper.
“I just want you to treat us with fairness and fair play,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake.
Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said the new Democratic governor should retain the authority that outgoing governor enjoyed. “What you’re doing, in my book, is overreaching,” Michaux said. “Things are being done now because you can do it not because you should do it.”
Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, said he’d consider supporting a lot of provisions contained in the bill if it hadn’t been pushed through so quickly.
“Do it deliberatively,” Richardson said. “We haven’t had a chance to fully vet this.”
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, countered that it was appropriate to make the changes detailed in the bill now, especially since a new superintendent of public instruction will be taking office in January.
“I think this bill strengthens that position considerably,” Dollar said.
Earlier in the day, when the bill was taken up in the House Rules Committee, Democrats offered little resistance.
Jackson said Democratic members already had been briefed by the General Assembly’s nonpartisan staff on the details in the bill, and there was no need to repeat those details in committee. He said Democrats would make the political and policy arguments during floor debate.
Jackson acknowledged that the provision requiring Senate confirmation of the governor’s Cabinet appointees was already in the N.C. Constitution. “It was just never exercised,” Jackson said.
The bill passed the House on a 70-36 vote. It is expected to be taken up Friday in committee and on the floor in the Senate.