Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory has signed into law a measure that will increase the number of state workers he can hire and fire at will to the highest level in a quarter-century.
With his signature on House Bill 834 Wednesday morning, McCrory can immediately designate up to 1,500 workers – up from the current 1,000 – as "exempt" from the State Personnel Act. Those employees, which are spread across 11 cabinet departments, serve "at-will" and can't contest their removal from the job.
The new law marks the second time in less than a year lawmakers have increased the governor's cap on these positions. Since McCrory's predecessor left office, the number of at-will positions the state's sitting chief executive can designate has more than tripled, despite remaining relatively unchanged for 28 years under Democratic leadership.
Changes to the State Personnel Act also include revisions to the existing grievance process, which non-exempt employees can use to dispute firing and disciplinary actions. Proponents of the bill complain grievances take too long to resolve.
McCrory has said the new law will drastically increase the flexibility to streamline government and cut down on "internal red tape."
“This is a good first step in initiating performance management and employee evaluation for all state workers,” McCrory said in a statement. “The State Personnel Act promotes efficiency in state government and streamlines a wasteful grievance process that has averaged more than 450 days.”
The bill had widespread support in the General Assembly, and even the State Employees Association of North Carolina was on board with the changes. Although SEANC initially opposed the bill in its early form, Executive Director Dana Cope said in July that not much will change for nonexempt state employees, who would still have much of the same access to the appeals process as they have now.
"The governor and I and the Senate leadership and the House leadership have all sat down at the table and negotiated the entire bill, came up with a resolution and it's ready to go," Cope said.
But critics of the bill, including Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, have expressed concern that more exempt positions will lead to more ideology deeper down in state departments.
"It's hard to know all the details, but any time the number of political positions is expanding, the possibility of people being appointed who lack the proper credentials increases," said Luebke, who was one of only 10 members of the General Assembly – all Democrats – to vote against the final version of the bill.
Following a change to the State Personnel Act last year, McCrory had more than 500 extra positions to designate exempt upon entering office than Gov. Bev Perdue. Watchdog groups say they're troubled by how far down McCrory's additional exemptions go, particularly in departments charged with making major decisions about the state's future.
An analysis by WRAL News showed that these re-designated workers are disproportionately concentrated within the hierarchy of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where environmental regulators will implement upcoming legislative decisions on natural gas drilling, offshore oil exploration and changes to air and water quality rules.
Exempt employees now make up about 5 percent of the department's 3,500 employees, a percentage second only to the much smaller Department of Administration. In some cases, especially in areas involved in permitting and compliance, employees six levels removed from the DENR secretary now serve in exempt positions.
"The underlying concern here is that the deeper you go and the more you positions you exempt – it's making those positions much more political than they've ever been," Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices, said.
But DENR spokesperson Drew Elliot said this is not the case.
“There has been no decision that we have made from an environmental standpoint that has been influenced by politics,” Elliot said. “I don't expect that to change in the future because the number of exempt positions has increased.”
Officials from the state personnel office and DENR say this comparatively high concentration of at-will employees is largely due to the department's decentralized structure. Elliot said his department may also be ahead of others in the process of reorganizing and streamlining their organization charts.
“We do not expect to ask for any additional positions when the next 500 come available,” he said.
With an additional 500 exempt positions to designate, Office of State Human Resources Director Neal Alexander said McCrory will be able to continue his efforts to treat people with the same types of jobs consistently and fairly across cabinet departments.
"To be honest, that was not happening before with the small number in previous administrations," Alexander said. "There's a lot more integration and alignment under McCrory than there have been in previous administrations."