Opinion: CJ Opinion

Next N.C. government power struggle could focus on energy deal

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Tucked away on the 48th page of a 49-page energy bill in the N.C. legislature is a provision that could set up another state government power struggle.

The provision would block Gov. Roy Cooper or any successor from joining a regional program designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If approved, the bill would ensure only the General Assembly could make the ultimate decision to support such a plan.

A section of House Bill 951 aims to “prohibit unauthorized executive branch actions” to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Eleven Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, including neighboring Virginia, now support RGGI. They agree to cap and reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel-fired electric power plants.

“The General Assembly has not enacted legislation that would authorize the executive branch to enter into an agreement to participate in RGGI, or similar agreement on behalf of the State, nor implement requirements for emissions limitations and cap and trade attendant with the RGGI program,” according to the bill.

“Absent authorization through an act of the General Assembly, such action by the executive branch would constitute an impermissible infringement of the General Assembly’s duty to enact laws that ‘protect or promote the health, morals, order, safety, and general welfare of society,’” according to the bill.

“Until such time as the General Assembly enacts legislation to authorize the State’s participation in RGGI, and implementation of emissions limitations and cap-and-trade requirements attendant with the RGGI program, the executive branch shall be prohibited from taking such action.”

The state House approved the provision with a 61-47 vote on July 14, roughly 10 minutes before taking the first of two required votes on the larger energy bill. The vote on the RGGI amendment fell entirely along party lines. Republicans endorsed the measure, while Democrats opposed it.

“It’s the General Assembly — my friends and colleagues, the elected people — through the Constitution of North Carolina, the power is vested in the people, and that is shown forth through their elected representatives,” said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, while introducing the amendment. “We are the policymakers.”

The bill sits now in the Senate’s Agriculture, Energy, and Environment Committee. If the RGGI provision remains intact as senators work on the bill, the measure eventually could head to Cooper.

The governor has rejected previous legislative measures designed to rein in his power. Sometimes those disagreements have headed to court.

If Cooper wields his veto stamp to block the energy bill, House vote totals suggest legislators would have a hard time rounding up votes to override the veto. The House approved the full energy package with the support of 54% of voting members. A bill needs 60% support for a successful veto override.

Cooper has not pledged publicly to join RGGI. But a March report from researchers at the University of North Carolina and Duke analyzed how membership in RGGI could help meet emission reduction goals set out in Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan.

In June a spokesman for the governor called RGGI membership “a policy option under consideration,” according to WRAL. Left-of-center news outlet The New Republic reported on July 12 that Cooper’s office, “behind the scenes,” had been working with environmental groups to facilitate RGGI membership. The state’s Environmental Management Commission, with a majority of its membership appointed by the governor, voted 9-3 on July 13 to start the rule-making process to join RGGI.

The Cooper administration has attracted attention in recent months for its response to another regional group focusing on reducing emissions. A March column in Forbes noted that Cooper had signed onto a statement pledging to work with 11 other states to meet the goals of the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

While RGGI focuses on power plant emissions, TCI focuses on reducing emissions from the transportation sector. Critics contend the initiative’s goals would boost gasoline prices by 30 cents per gallon in participating states.

Organizers had hoped initially to get 13 states to join the transportation initiative. At this point, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia have endorsed the plan formally.

As with RGGI, the transportation agreement has faced no scrutiny or votes within the General Assembly. There’s no record of Cooper consulting legislative leaders before deciding to add North Carolina’s name to the list of states working with the transportation emissions group.

It’s the type of unilateral action that’s unlikely to foster good relations between state government’s executive and legislative branches. It’s the type of action that could boost legislative support for the provision tucked into the 48th page of the energy bill.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.