Raleigh, N.C. — The House Commerce Committee gave approval Wednesday to a revamped version of a Senate bill that would eliminate, fire or reconfigure more than two dozen state oversight boards.
The move could mark the first political fight of the session between the House and Senate.
The Senate's version of Senate Bill 10 would have cleared out the membership of the Utilities Commission, Industrial Commission, Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources Commission, Coastal Resources Advisory Council, Wildlife Resources Commission and State Lottery Commission. It would eliminate another 15 boards and commissions.
Most of the board members the bill would fire were appointed by Democratic leaders. The bill would clear the way for Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory to repopulate those boards with GOP majorities. It would also give legislators appointments on boards that were previously appointed only by the governor.
The measure also fires 12 special Superior Court judges, also appointed by Democratic governors.
The House version of the bill made a few changes. Most notably, it cuts out the language removing the judges, and it would keep four specified members on the Environmental Management and Coastal Resources commissions for the sake of preserving institutional knowledge.
The original House version of the bill would also have exempted the Utilities Commission from the overhaul, but House Majority Whip Mike Hager, a retired Duke Energy engineer, successfully amended the bill to put the agency back in. He argued that it needs to be reconstituted with board members who have experience in the utility industry, business or economics.
Hager, R-Rutherford, noted that the June 30 deadline for the current Utilities Commission will give sitting members time to complete the Progress Energy rate case currently underway.
The new, more business-friendly Utilities Commission would be in place to decide the next scheduled rate case – that of Duke Energy.
House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes opposed the amendment. "If there's anything that's not broken in North Carolina, it's our Utilities Commission," he told the committee.
"I disagree that you have to have industry-related experience to be on the commission," he said, noting that the board's mission is to work primarily for the benefit of the consumer.
"You don't have to have any kind of experience to be a member of the General Assembly," added Starnes, R-Caldwell.
"Some days, that shows," quipped Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg.
Starnes also opposed the clearing out of the Industrial Commission.
"I think that it's wrong-headed for us to do this at this time," he said. "I think it sends the wrong message to the public. I think it sends the wrong message to the people that sent us here."
That concern was echoed by Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke.
"I think it sends the wrong message to suggest we don't like this group of people. It suggests that we are more interested in whether they're making decisions we approve of than following the law," Blackwell said.
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, agreed.
"This, to me, just smacks of partisan opportunism," she said, "just a way to eliminate one side of the aisle's chance at making some sort of fair play happen."
But the bill's most vocal critic was its Senate author, Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca.
Apodaca, R-Henderson, was invited to speak to the committee in support of his bill, but after hearing the changes the House had made to it, he angrily declined.
"I feel like the parent that sends a kid to college and they come home at Thanksgiving, and you don't recognize them. My goodness, what have you done to my child?" he asked the committee.
"This is not the way to start the session," Apodaca fumed. "I just look forward to seeing you in conference committee."
He then walked out, slamming the committee room door behind him.
The measure passed House Commerce 34-24, with three Republicans – Blackwell, Rep. Michael Speciale of Craven County and Rep. Charles Jeter of Mecklenburg – joining all Democrats in voting no. Its next hearing is in House Rules Thursday.