A lengthy analysis by WRAL News shows that 167 NC environmental regulators will soon be subject to firing for any or no reason, at the discretion of Gov. Pat McCrory. That’s seven times the number of exempt or political positions in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources during Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration. Gov. McCrory, a former Duke Energy executive, has repeatedly said he wants North Carolina to move faster to exploit energy exploration and streamline environmental regulations that affect his major financial backers. Here’s an excerpt from the WRAL story about the possible impact of personnel changes on decisions related to natural gas drilling, offshore oil exploration and changes to air and water quality rules:
A legislative change to the State Personnel Act in 2012 gave Gov. Pat McCrory the ability to designate 1,000 so-called “exempt positions” throughout his cabinet departments, more than any governor in a quarter-century. These re-designated workers are disproportionately concentrated within the hierarchy of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In some cases, especially in areas involved in permitting and compliance, employees six levels removed from the DENR secretary now serve in exempt positions.
“The underlying concern here is that the deeper you go and the more positions you exempt – it’s making those positions much more political than they’ve ever been,” Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices, said. In the three years since Republicans took control of the legislature, lawmakers have slashed the agency’s budget by more than 40 percent and moved entire divisions out from the DENR organization chart.
In addition to stripping away the requirement that the state demonstrate just cause before firing an employee, exempt employees are also not subject to salary ranges set by the State Personnel Commission, an appointed board. “Morale is at the lowest that I have seen,” said Michael Burkhard, a former environmental senior specialist with the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, who retired in May. “It’s down to the very bottom right now.”
Proportionally, this seven-fold increase outpaces the growth of exempt employees in every other cabinet agency, including much larger departments like Health and Human Services and Transportation. “I think part of the reason for that is that we had the opportunity to designate additional people as managerial and policy-making exempt,” Neal Alexander, director of the Office of State Personnel, said. “This creates the opportunity to have that alignment to the governor’s vision, the administration’s vision and the secretary’s vision.”