Transportation spending, governing changes heading to Cooper

General Assembly - Raleigh - May 2020
N.C. General Assembly as seen from the grounds of the Capitol building. (A.P. Dillon, North State Journal)

RALEIGH — The General Assembly gave its final approval on Wednesday to a North Carolina transportation funding and governing overhaul following a recent stinging audit and COVID-19-related revenue declines at the Department of Transportation.

The House agreed 99-17 to the Senate version of the bill, which also would let legislative leaders pick six members of the Board of Transportation. Currently all 19 voting members of the board are chosen by Gov. Roy Cooper. But Republican lawmakers say more people with different perspectives are needed on a panel that had become more ceremonial in recent years.

Cooper, a Democrat, had warned GOP lawmakers last week against a “power grab” in the DOT funding measure. Cooper’s office hasn’t said what he thinks about the bill heading to his desk. Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican and bill negotiator, said this week he’s been told Cooper will let the bill become law. Legislative Democrats haven’t railed against the governance changes, which were adjusted so that Cooper could now pick the board chairman.

The measure locates over $600 million in spending cuts during the next fiscal year to deal with a cash shortage that began last year at DOT and got exacerbated in the spring as gas and vehicles sales taxes plummeted during the pandemic. The revenue drop dried up construction and required department-wide furloughs. The bill also locates additional revenues by retooling debt options and by keeping the gas tax from falling as scheduled in early 2021.

A recent performance audit by State Auditor Beth Wood also calculated that DOT overspent by $740 million last year. The audit recommended for more spending controls. The legislation creates a new position within Cooper’s state budget office to scrutinize the agency.