House lawmakers tentatively approved Thursday a proposal to make sweeping changes to the state’s boards and commissions.
Senate Bill 10 would eliminate, fire or restructure about two dozen boards and commissions, including the State Board of Elections, the State Board of Education, the Coastal Resources Commission, the Environmental Management Commission, the Wildlife Resources Commission, the Industrial Commission and the Utilities Commission.
The House version of the bill went through a dizzying number of changes in just 36 hours. It was added to Thursday's House calendar without public notice, after additional changes were made in a Rules Committee meeting earlier in the day.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Nelson Dollar urged his fellow House members to support the bill. "When have you seen the General Assembly take a significant number of boards and reduce the size of government?” he asked.
The House bill would eliminate about 160 seats on those boards and commissions. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, pointed out that 97 of those seats are on commissions that deal with environmental oversight.
Harrison urged Republican leaders to take a more thoughtful approach. "We’ve never in this state taken such a drastic move to wipe out the membership of so many commissions in one piece of legislation,” she said.
Dollar, R-Wake, said the measure is time-sensitive. “You only really get to do this sort of thing at the beginning of a new administration, and you have to do it now because appointments are beginning to be made," he argued.
But Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, said the changes the bill makes to qualifications for many boards would "eliminate people who care about the environment, people who care about the consumer, people who care about the citizen."
"That, to me, isn’t a reform," Ross said. "That, to me, is handing government over to special interests."
Democrats – and even some Republicans – criticized the rush to pass the bill with little opportunity for public input.
The House version of the measure was available to the public for just 35 hours before its vote Thursday.
Most wouldn't even have known to look for it, though, since the bill's hearing in the House Commerce Committee Wednesday morning wasn't listed on the paper calendars available to the public that day.
"This isn't the will of the people," Minority Leader Larry Hall said. "So whose will is it?"
Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Murry denied a lack of transparency, noting that the committee room was full of people, but none took advantage of the opportunity to comment on the measure at that meeting.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, took his own caucus leaders to task for moving the bill to a vote without public knowledge.
"The calendar is notice to the public of what we’re doing," he said. "Whether you like it or not, due process means notice to be heard, and at least have your point of view considered.
"I don’t like this idea, 'Well, we have the power. Let’s go ahead and do it,'" Blust said.
However, Democrats also gave House leaders credit for having moderated many of the more extreme aspects of the Senate bill, including a potentially unconstitutional provision to fire a dozen special Superior Court judges.
The final House version allows the current Utilities Commission members to continue to serve out their terms until 2015. The Industrial Commission members would roll off on a staggered schedule, too.
The measure passed its second reading, 70-42. All Republicans but two supported it – Reps. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County and Michael Speciale of Craven County.
It will be up for a final vote on the House floor Monday night. It then goes back to the Senate, where it will be sent to a conference committee.
Speaking after the vote, Hall, D-Durham, called on Republican leaders to seek more public input on the changes before the final version of the bill comes back.
"This is not a fly-by-night operation. This is the state of North Carolina," he said. "This is not the way to do business."