By Tyler Dukes
RALEIGH, N.C. — More than 100 state environmental regulators who will implement upcoming legislative decisions on natural gas drilling, offshore oil exploration and changes to air and water quality rules will soon do so as “exempt” employees who can be fired without cause or appeal.
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.
An analysis by WRAL News shows that these re-designated workers are disproportionately concentrated within the hierarchy of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where McCrory will soon strip employment protections from about 150 directors and managers.
When the changes go into effect this month, exempt employees will make up about 5 percent of the department’s 3,500 employees, a percentage second only to the much smaller Department of Administration. The result is a deep penetration of at-will employees in areas responsible for issuing permits and enforcing environmental regulations.
“The underlying concern here is that the deeper you go and the more you 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.
The McCrory administration attributes the comparatively high number of exempt employees to the unique management structure of DENR, which has regional offices dotted across the state. But environmental advocates say it’s another step toward bringing the department in line with efforts to expand energy production and cull regulations in the state, an agenda McCrory has repeatedly pushed with the General Assembly.
Department earns temporary reprieve
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.
When he sat down with WRAL News in January, incoming DENR Secretary John Skvarla said one of his first missions was to repair a relationship with lawmakers that was “more adversarial than it’s needed to be.” With a change in approach, he said, it was possible for his department to work more effectively with businesses and developers and protect the environment at the same time.
“Maybe it’s not the regulations. Maybe it’s the way, internally at DENR, they handle permittees,”Skvarla said. “Maybe with a more customer service environment, the regulations stay the same and everybody is happy because they’ve worked together to try to accomplish the same thing. That’s my goal.”
The 2013-15 budget restored the worst of the cuts. But in a video message to his staff last month, Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder said lawmakers will spare the rod only for so long.
“We’re only getting a six- to nine-month reprieve, and we’ve got to get out ahead of this problem, and we’ve got to do it now,” Reeder said. “We don’t have any choice about this. By next spring, we have to have turned our public perception around.”
The department has another mandate from legislators as well, provided McCrory signs a major regulatory reform bill approved in the final days of the 2013 session. The bill asks agencies to review regulations and classify them as “unneeded,” “needed but not controversial” and “needed but controversial.” DENR is first on deck for that process.