- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The Republican-controlled General Assembly could be heading toward another power struggle with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over appointments, this time over the composition of the North Carolina Board of Transportation.

Three Senate committees on Wednesday approved a Department of Transportation oversight measure that would take away Cooper’s ability to appoint the at-large members on the board, giving it instead to the House speaker and Senate leader. The governor currently appoints all 19 voting members - one from each of the 14 DOT regions and five considered at-large. A sixth at-large position would be added.

The first two years of Cooper’s gubernatorial term were marked by repeated litigation against the GOP-dominated legislature, which passed several laws eroding his powers, including appointments to the State Board of Elections.

The provisions in the measure are designed to rein in a department that was criticized in a recent state audit for $740 million in overspending last year. Combined with a $370 million drop in projected revenues due to the COVID-19 economic downturn and DOT this spring stopped awarding new construction contracts and required its 9,300 employees to take furloughs.

The measure directs spending cuts for the next fiscal year to close an anticipated shortfall, locates additional borrowing capacity to spend on current road projects and prevents the state gasoline tax from falling as expected in January. But it also directs DOT to come up with a comprehensive cash-spending plan, creates a new position within Cooper’s state budget office to scrutinize the agency and orders annual performance audits by Wood’s office.

Cooper would still appoint the 14 regional members under the bill. Appointees to the reconstituted 20-member board would have to have professional backgrounds in transportation, budgeting, accounting or finance.

“Our goal is to put more eyes on the problem,” said Sen. Jim Davis, a Macon County Republican shepherding the bill. “We just think (the) more eyes are on this problem, the less likely that we’re going to spend three-quarters of a billion dollars over our budget.”

Senate Democrats said nothing about the bill during the two committee meetings, but Cooper warned in a letter obtained by The Associated Press against combining “must-do” spending bills with controversial ideas.

“I agree that the Department of Transportation … needs emergency funding,” Cooper wrote on Tuesday to top legislative budget-writers. “But pairing needed funding for DOT to restart contracts with a power grab on the Board of Transportation is deeply concerning. We do not need another balance of power feud between the executive and legislative branches in the middle of this emergency.”

Laws weakening Cooper’s gubernatorial powers began mere weeks before he was sworn in January 2017. Unable to overcome veto-proof majorities, Cooper challenged laws in court with mixed results. Such legislation ebbed as Democrats increased their legislative seat totals in 2018.

A generation ago, the DOT board was still one of the plum panels through which a governor could reward a political supporter. Appointees were known to maneuver funds toward favored road-building projects where they live.

The board’s power weakened during the 21st century. Then-Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue basically took away power from board members to vote on individual projects. And a 2013 bipartisan law signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory put more emphasis on data in deciding which projects were most important to the state, region and each of the regional divisions.

In Wednesday’s legislation, the pendulum would swing back slightly to strengthen the board.

“DOT has needed the services of a working board versus a ceremonial board,” said Sen. Tom McInnis, a Richmond County Republican.

The bill still must clear one more Senate committee before a floor vote. The House also would have to vote on the measure.

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