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Adding diversity or a 'power grab'? NC Senate leaders want to cut governor's appointments

Rusty Jacobs
Senate leader Phil Berger is seeking changes to how powerful state boards and commissions are appointed. Berger is pictured addressing reporters in Raleigh on Jan. 14, 2020.

Republican state Senate leaders want the legislature to have more control over who serves on powerful boards and commissions.

The governor currently appoints most or all of the members of boards like the state Utilities Commission, Board of Transportation and the Coastal Resources Commission. That would change under legislation that will get its first hearing Tuesday morning in a Senate committee, just one day after the bill was first introduced.

Senate leader Phil Berger is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said in a news release that the change would ensure that a wider range of views is represented on the boards.

“These boards and commissions are charged with overseeing areas of state government that have a tremendous impact on our daily lives,” Berger said. “By balancing the membership of these unelected boards, we’re increasing the viewpoints on the boards by diversifying the appointing authorities.”

Gov. Roy Cooper has mostly picked fellow Democrats for the board seats. Making more seats appointed by legislative leaders could give some boards a Republican majority.

For example, the governor currently appoints all seven members of the Utilities Commission, which sets rates for electricity and other services and regulates utility companies like Duke Energy. Senate Bill 512 would add members to the commission, allowing the governor to appoint four members while legislative leaders appoint four others and the state treasurer appoints a ninth member. The commission would also move from the Department of Commerce — a Cabinet agency under the governor — to the state treasurer's office.

A spokeswoman for Cooper said Monday he strongly opposes the change.

“This legislation will hurt the state’s efforts for public health, clean water, more commuter rail transportation and lower electric bills," spokeswoman Sam Chan said in a news release. "This is another massive, unconstitutional power grab by Republican legislators who have a track record of right wing partisan appointees who do not reflect the demographic or political diversity in our state and who often become mired in toxic infighting and controversy."

In total, Berger’s bill affects nine boards out of the hundreds of appointed boards in state government. They include the Environmental Management Commission, UNC Health Board of Directors, Economic Investment Committee (which oversees jobs incentives), Commission for Public Health, Wildlife Resources Commission, and the N.C. Railroad Board of Directors.

Berger's news release said current board members will serve out their full terms if the bill becomes law. The new approach to appointments would take effect this summer.

The release of SB 512 on Monday came hours after Cooper allowed another bill that reduces his appointment authority to become law without his signature. That new law — which the governor had vetoed before — changes the governance structure for the state-run schools for the blind and deaf.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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