- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A proposed financial and governing overhaul for North Carolina’s Department of Transportation received unanimous state Senate approval this week even though it would lessen Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s control of the DOT board.

The measure, which now goes to the House after more Senate floor debate on Friday, locates over $600 million in spending cuts during the next fiscal year to deal with a cash shortage. The Board of Transportation also would undergo a significant change by allowing legislative leaders to choose some positions on the panel. Currently, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper picks all 19 members.

Transportation dollars were already tight due to DOT overspending, which a recent state performance audit calculated last year to be $740 million. Then came dwindling gas and vehicle sales tax revenues due to the COVID-19 economic downturn, drying up construction and requiring department-wide furloughs this spring.

The bill’s authors located more transportation funds through retooled debt options and by keeping the state motor fuels tax from falling as scheduled in early 2021. But the legislation also directs one-time cuts next year, with public transportation taking a big hit at over $76 million.

“This is a very grim, dire situation we’re in financially right now,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham County Democrat who worked with Republicans on the measure. “So we had to make some very, very hard cuts.”

The audit recommended more oversight of DOT spending, which the legislation provides by creating creates a new position within Cooper’s state budget office to scrutinize the agency. But the legislation goes further by letting the House speaker and Senate leader pick six members on a new 20-member board.

Republican leaders said these and other board alterations were needed to increase the panel’s role, which GOP lawmakers said had become essentially ceremonial in recent years.

The DOT board needed to be more “fiduciarily responsible,” Sen. Tom McInnis, a Richmond County Republican, said Thursday.

Earlier this week, Cooper wrote legislative budget writers warning them against creating “another balance of power feud” by pairing DOT funding for next year with a “power grab on the Board of Transportation.”

An amendment approved Friday appeared designed to attempt to ease the governor’s concerns, particularly by ending a current requirement that three of his appointments not belong to his political party. The governor also would get to appoint the board chairman. The board currently picks its own.

“This is truly a compromise bill,” McInnis said Friday before it passed 41-0.

Cooper spokesperson Ford Porter said late Friday the governor will review the legislation.

Also Friday, a Senate committee held a confirmation hearing for Eric Boyette, whom Cooper named as his new transportation secretary in February.

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