May 25, 2016. In response to the N.C. Supreme Court decision in McCrory v. Berger, the House of Representatives has approved a bill to reconstitute the Coal Ash Management Commission, the Mining Commission and the Oil and Gas Commission. The lawsuit largely concerned the constitutionality of legislative appointments to the commissions, but also challenged a provision in the Coal Ash Management Act that made the Coal Ash Management Commission independent of oversight by any executive branch department. See an earlier post on the court decision here.
The McCrory v. Berger decision does not state any clear, generally applicable separation of powers rule with respect to organization and appointment of state boards and commissions. (The court so stoutly resists providing any general rule, that the decision may raise more questions than it answers.) But the court clearly held that the General Assembly violated the separation of powers doctrine in the N.C. Constitution by giving the legislature power to appoint a majority of each commission’s members. Senate Bill 71 attempts to cure that separation of powers violation.
The Governor’s Office does not believe the bill resolves the separation of powers issues and has put the legislature on notice that the Governor will file suit again if the new bill becomes law. In fact, the Governor’s objections have broadened and appear to attack the entire concept of giving executive authority to citizen commissions. The expansive interpretation of McCrory v. Berger adopted by the Governor’s Office would potentially affect many other longstanding commissions, including the Environmental Management Commission.
The Senate Bill 71 response to McCrory v. Berger. The bill amends laws creating the three commissions at issue in McCrory v. Berger to give the Governor a majority of appointments subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. The bill also insures that the governor’s appointees represent a majority of the quorum required for commission action. Senate Bill 71 removes language in the Coal Ash Management Act that made the Coal Ash Management Commission “independent” of supervision by the Department of Public Safety (where the Commission has been administratively housed) and adds a clause noting the powers and duties of the Secretary of Public Safety — appointed by the Governor — with respect to programs in the department.
As a backstop, the bill has a provision that transfers the responsibilities of the Coal Ash Management Commission to the existing Environmental Management Commission if Governor McCrory fails to make timely appointments or the reconstituted CAMC becomes the focus of new litigation.
The Governor’s opposition. The Governor’s Office does not believe the bill resolves the separation of powers issues surrounding appointment and supervision of the three commissions. The Governor’s legal counsel, Bob Stephens, appeared in a House Committee to oppose the bill and listed several objections:
- The Governor opposes legislative confirmation of commission appointees as a new violation of separation of powers. Legislative confirmation has been the exception rather than the rule in North Carolina, but is required for a few boards and commissions. State law has long required legislative confirmation of the Governor’s appointees to the N.C. Utilities Commission. The McCrory v. Berger decision does not discuss legislative confirmation one way or the other since it was not an issue in the case. Mr. Stephens did not explain the legal basis for the Governor’s position in committee, but a letter from Mr. Stephens to legislative leaders contends that legislative confirmation inappropriately interferes with the Governor’s appointment power.
- Governor McCrory objects to provisions giving the Governor authority to remove a commission member only for misconduct or failure to perform their duties. Stephens argued that the decision in McCrory v. Berger means the governor must have the power to remove governor’s appointees at will. On this point, the McCrory v. Berger decision itself is unclear. The court talks about power to remove commission members as necessary for the Governor to effectively supervise commissions with executive powers. Although the decision can be read to imply that removal for cause may not be sufficient, the court never expressly holds the Governor must have power to remove commissioners at will. Instead, the court treats power to remove as one of several factors to be considered in determining whether the legislature has inappropriately limited the Governor’s executive authority. The actual holding in the case turns on the number of legislative appointments to each commission.
- Governor McCrory does not believe Senate Bill 71 sufficiently recognizes the Governor’s authority to supervise the Coal Ash Management Commission. The CAMC has been administratively housed in the Division of Emergency Management of the Department of Public Safety, but the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act included language that put the CAMC outside the supervision and direction of either the Division or the Department. Senate Bill 71 removes the “independence” language and adds a clause noting the statutory authority of the Secretary of Public Safety (which includes supervisory responsibility for programs in the department). Stephens rejected the changes as insufficient to give the Governor supervisory control over the CAMC consistent with McCrory v. Berger, but did not suggest alternative language to the committee.
Questioning the entire concept of citizen commissions. Yesterday, Mr. Stephens sent a letter to House and Senate leaders to express the Governor’s concerns in writing. The letter goes beyond the comments offered in committee and opposes the exercise of executive authority by any citizen commission not entirely within the governor’s supervision and control. The Governor interprets McCrory v. Berger to mean the Governor must have the ability to appoint members without legislative confirmation; remove members at will; and direct commission actions in much the way the Governor, through cabinet secretaries, directs state agency employees. The letter to Senate President pro tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore rejects the idea of using the existing Environmental Management Commission as a backup for the Coal Ash Management Commission because:
The Environmental Management Commission suffers from the same constitutional defects as the proposed Coal Ash Management Commission. Again, the Governor must have a majority of appointments, the ability to remove his appointees at will and the ability to supervise the day to day activities of the commission.
The letter goes on to argue that commissions with ability to “review and approve” executive agency decisions:
pose an exceptional threat to the Governor’s duty to execute the laws…Some in the General Assembly believe that independent commissions superior to our agencies are a good idea — they serve as a check on the executive branch. But McCrory v. Berger rejects this argument.
That conclusion cannot be found in the McCrory v. Berger decision. The court went out of its way to avoid grand declarations — to the point of leaving a lot of confusion about how to apply the decision beyond the three commissions directly involved in the case. The statement reflects the Governor’s expansive interpretation of McCrory v. Berger and signals an intent to use that interpretation to either eliminate semi-independent citizen commissions or to force a significant change in the role of commissions.
The practice of giving citizen commissions authority to develop and implement state policy has a long history in North Carolina. Commissions — rather than the Department of Environmental Quality– adopt most state environmental rules. While checking the executive branch may have been one purpose, commissions also bring a broad range of expertise and practical experience to policy development and implementation. Laws creating the commissions require members to have backgrounds more diverse than those typically found among the technical staff of a state agency. By law, the Environmental Management Commission must have members with backgrounds in business, agriculture, public health, local government, conservation, etc. Members bring that expertise and experience to bear on environmental policy decisions. EMC members, like most state commission members, have other full-time jobs; volunteer their time to the state; and in return receive only reimbursement of travel costs and a very small per diem for meeting days.
Given the different perspectives among commission members and a perch outside state government bureaucracy, commissions will not always see an issue in quite the way a Governor’s political appointees do. Recent friction between the Environmental Management Commission and the Department of Environmental Quality attests to that. On balance, the benefits of bringing citizen commissions into state policy development have outweighed the messiness and occasional friction. The Governor seems to prefer something more like the federal model — where policy development and policy implementation are both firmly under the control of a government agency. The question is whether a separation of powers argument can take him there.
Next steps for Senate Bill 71. The bill passed the Senate last year as a bill to adjust the terms of Rules Review Commission members. Since the House has stripped out the original Senate bill text and replaced it with something entirely different, the bill now goes back to the Senate for concurrence in the changes. The bill also makes other substantive changes to the Coal Ash Management Act to be discussed in another blogpost.