For McCrory, two is better than one

Jun. 26, 2013 @ 06:37 PM

RALEIGH — A confident Gov. Pat McCrory Wednesday earned two victories Wednesday — first by signing transportation funding formula changes into law and second by receiving initial House support to shift many Commerce Department duties to an outside group.

House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger and other lawmakers stood behind the governor — all Republicans — in the old House chamber on the 1840 Capitol building as he made official the "Strategic Mobility Formula."

The transportation effort retools the recipe for how $1.5 billion in state and federal highway funds get spent annually by emphasizing regional and statewide projects that will ease congestion and promote economic growth, he said.

McCrory said he's also working with legislators to get to his desk before this year's session ends in a few weeks changes to the State Personnel Act and Medicaid as well as expanding efforts for oil and natural gas exploration off the Atlantic coast and inland.

"This may be the first major reform signed into law but I promise you it won't be the last," McCrory told the group watching him at the signing ceremony. "We're working on many others ... we're all looking out for the future of North Carolina."

Later Wednesday, the House gave tentative approval to McCrory-backed legislation to begin the process to shift department responsibilities for travel and tourism, international trade and economic recruitment to the yet-created private nonprofit corporation. McCrory has said the proposed North Carolina Economic Development Partnership would make the state more nimble in recruiting businesses and help create a long statewide economic plan.

The current Highway Trust fund formula distributes money equally among the state's 14 transportation divisions. McCrory said during his gubernatorial campaigns the formula punished metropolitan areas because large projects siphoned away most of their funds.

The formula approved Wednesday distributes 40 percent of trust fund and federal aid money to statewide projects and 30 percent each to regional and division projects. Potential projects will be ranked on a scoring system. The needs of regional and local transportation governing bodies also will be taken into account.

The state Department of Transportation estimates the rewrite, to be fully implemented in 2015, will result in nearly 50 percent more projects over the next 10 years compared to the current plan. The projects will generate more than 240,000 jobs over those 10 years, compared to 174,000 jobs with the current system. This will occur even as state officials predict transportation revenue will decline by $1.7 billion over the next 10 years.

Despite initial concerns from rural legislators, the funding formula ultimately received near unanimous, bipartisan support from the House and Senate.

"When we set about this, I really anticipated a long, hard road in the legislature," Tillis said, but "it's a plan that very clearly creates more opportunities for more roads sooner everywhere across the state."

House members aren't as sold on the commerce bill, which was approved by a vote of 76-38. Most Democrats voted against the bill, some of whom said the measure is being rushed and ends state support for regional economic development commissions in January.

"The authority and the power need to not reside in exclusively in Raleigh," said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood.

Republicans largely backed the governor's plan. Some of them said the state and regional commissions haven't been able to respond quickly enough to economic opportunities and have lost out to other states.

"We have got to find new ways and do things differently in the state of North Caroilna," said Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee.

Still, eight Republicans voted no, some of whom said they were worried about the role of the nonprofit corporation on tax breaks or credits companies would receive from the state. A 15-member governing board for the corporation would make recommendations to state officials about which companies should receive incentives, raising conflict-of-interest concerns.

Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker told legislators last week that public officials would have the final decision on incentives and that there would be a "firewall" with the private nonprofit, whose leaders would be subject to laws against self-dealing.

A final House vote could come Thursday before the bill returns to the Senate. The Senate was also expected Thursday to debate and vote on McCrory's personnel proposal. The bill would shorten the grievance process for state employees and let McCrory hire more at-will workers.