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High drama in the legislative power grab

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It’s not every day that a powerful Senator storms out of a House Committee meeting where his bill is being heard and slams the door behind him. Or that members of a majority party overwhelmingly vote against their own majority leader after he makes passionate pleas on amendments being heard in a committee.

Both of those things happened Wednesday in the House Commerce Committee that was debating the House version of a Senate partisan power grab proposal sponsored by Senator Tom Apodaca that would dismiss dozens of members of key policymaking boards and commissions and replace them with Republican appointees.

And the door slamming and House Republican mini-mutiny weren’t even the most starling events in the 75-minute committee meeting.

That came when Rep. Mike Hager, a former Duke Energy employee, offered an amendment to the House bill to restore the bulk of a provision in the Senate bill that would fire four current members of the Utilities Commission at the end of June.

That would mean Governor Pat McCrory, who himself worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, would then name a new slate of commissioners as the company is seeking approval of a rate hike from the commission.

Hager’s amendment would also require the appointees to have industry backgrounds.

It was all too much for House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes who urged committee members to vote against the proposal, reminding his colleagues that the commissioners were supposed to look out for consumers as well as the utility companies.

The committee voted to remake the Utilities Commission anyway and also rejected a plea from Starnes and fellow Republican Hugh Blackwell not to fire all the current members of the Industrial Commission that hears workers compensation claims.

Blackwell said that replacing all the members of the commission sends the wrong message to the public and that the commissioners should be allowed to finish their terms and then Republicans can make the appointments as scheduled.

Several other committee members vehemently disagreed, criticizing the job performance of some commissioners and seeing nothing wrong with the General Assembly in effect making personnel decisions affecting gubernatorial appointees.

The power-grabbing micromanagers won that battle too and the committee approved the bill over the objections of Democrats and a handful of Republican members brave enough to voice their concerns.

Much of the media coverage of the remarkable committee meeting focused on Apodaca’s obvious anger over the changes to his bill made by the House and the brewing battle between the two chambers.

And it’s certainly worth noting that the House power grab is slightly less bad than the Senate version. It does not fire 12 special judges like the Senate plan and makes less radical changes to some important boards like the Coastal Resources Commission.

But both proposals are unprecedented, firing experienced and appropriately appointed members of important panels before their terms expire. It’s an arrogant move by legislative leaders giddy with their power and determined to subvert the normal democratic processes of state government to increase it.

It’s a safe bet this is not what people voted for in November and they deserve better.