Raleigh, N.C. — Despite legal wrangling that led to a few no-show hearings and subpoenas, Gov. Roy Cooper's cabinet members have met almost no resistance in the Senate confirmation process so far.
The Senate voted 44-0 Thursday to confirm both Dr. Mandy Cohen as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Machelle Sanders as secretary of the Department of Administration. They became the fourth and fifth cabinet secretaries to complete the confirmation process without opposition.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, a frequent critic of DHHS, even praised Cohen on the Senate floor, saying she has "done an incredible job" in her first weeks overseeing the state's largest cabinet-level agency.
Cooper challenged the confirmation process, which lawmakers approved in a special session in December, saying it gave the General Assembly veto power over his top appointees. After Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs Larry Hall failed to appear at three confirmation hearings, senators began subpoenaing nominees to get them to answer questions.
A three-judge panel ruled last month that the confirmation process was legal and could move forward.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously recommended Michael Regan as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality.
After Cohen, who had ties to the Affordable Care Act, Regan was seen by most political observers as the toughest nominee to get confirmed because of his previous work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Defense Fund. Yet, Republican senators seemed pleased with his willingness to work with businesses instead of employing a heavy regulatory hand.
"I've always believed that protection of our natural resources and a thriving economy are not mutually exclusive," Regan told committee members. "It's much harder to separate natural resource protection and economic prosperity than it is to do them together."
Senators posed questions for Regan on topics ranging from wind farms near military bases and setting a safe level of hexavalent chromium in drinking water to balancing the interests of commercial and recreational fishermen and limiting lawsuits over hog farm operations. The toughest questioning revolved around his stances on actions taken by the EPA, such as implementing the Clean Power Plan and expanding control of "waters of the U.S." under former President Barack Obama.
Noting he prefers to negotiate than to litigate, Regan noted his department has withdrawn the state's lawsuit over the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to combat global warming by limiting emissions from power plants. President Donald Trump's administration doesn't support the plan, so North Carolina doesn't need to fight over it, Regan said, adding that he believes the state has taken enough actions over the years to reduce air pollution.
"Whether we have the Clean Power Plan or not, we'll be able to compete on the global stage," he said.
The "waters of the U.S." dispute involves the EPA's and the Army Corps of Engineers' attempt to enforce the federal Clean Water Act over more bodies of water across the country. Regan, whose background is in air quality, said he wasn't versed enough in water quality issues to explain the move, but he said his job is to follow state and federal law, so his staff is trying to sort through the Trump administration's position on the rule.
"We used to have a little saying at EPA: We like to educate before we regulate," he said, adding that he wants DEQ to have a good working relationship with various groups. "The goal isn't a gotcha game or a catch game. It's how can we work together to protect the state's natural resources.