GOP legislators pile on Cooper over Matthew, pipeline deal
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in North Carolina showcased their frustration Wednesday with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper administration’s handling of Hurricane Matthew relief and expressed scorn for his side agreement involving a proposed natural gas pipeline.
GOP leaders used the General Assembly’s chief government oversight committee to give party colleagues the platform to sound off on slow-moving housing funds nearly two years after Matthew struck the state.
They also revived arguments Cooper acted unconstitutionally in reaching a $58 million deal in January in which builders of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would provide the money and deciding generally how to spend those funds. GOP lawmakers stepped in weeks later and passed a law to intercept the funds — whenever they arrive — for public schools in the counties along the pipeline’s projected path.
“By what authority did Gov. Cooper believe he had the right to obtain these funds and retain nearly unfettered discretion over how to appropriate the funds?” asked Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican.
The committee’s debate plowed little new ground, and lawmakers agreed to form subcommittees to examine the two topics and report at an undetermined date. A House panel already has been scrutinizing the hurricane recovery. Lawmakers leading the discussions Wednesday sounded earnest in helping displaced residents and probing whether Cooper overstepped his boundaries set in the constitution with the pipeline’s memorandum of understanding.
Still, the committee meeting gave Republicans easy opportunity to bludgeon Cooper verbally entering a fall election season where the governor has made it his goal to end the GOP’s veto-proof House and Senate majorities.
“It’s apparent that the governor’s office has dropped the ball,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican, about the Matthew recovery. Lawmakers even got in a few licks complaining about recent long lines at the DMV, another Cooper agency.
Cooper administration members were present but essentially prevented from answering questions, apparently leaving the specifics for the subcommittee to examine. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter called it a “sham hearing.” Democrats on the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations suggested the legislative campaigns were one reason the pipeline issue had returned.
“We’re in late August, campaign season is getting geared up and now we’re here doing this today,” House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said.
While the Cooper administration says $740 million in federal, state and local funds have been spent after floods and damage caused by Matthew in October 2016, barely $2 million of $236 million allocated by the federal government last year to help reimburse or pay for extensive home repairs actually have been distributed.
The Division of Emergency Management attributes the slowness to extensive federal application requirements for both the state and the recipients. The division also hasn’t taken on a federal block grant of this scope before. It announced this week clearing big environmental hurdles for Cumberland, Edgecombe and Wayne counties.
“Let me promise you that more help is on the way,” said Cooper chief of staff Kristi Jones. She was allowed to make a statement to the committee later.
Jones also rejected accusations the $58 million fund was linked to approval of state regulatory permits, saying they were separate. The state ethics board in May dismissed a formal complaint filed against Cooper by the head of the conservative Civitas Institute, who made similar accusations.
“There are so many other things we could be talking about today, and I urge you not to let politics get in the way of progress,” Jones said.