By GARY D. ROBERTSON Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper sought again Monday the state Supreme Court’s help to try to rein in the General Assembly’s powers, this time over how federal block grants are spent.
Lawyers for Republican legislative leaders and the Democratic governor returned to the state’s highest court — this time virtually due to COVID-19 — for the latest push and pull between the two government branches.
Cooper has sued GOP lawmakers and their allies over several of their actions, including some that occurred mere weeks before he took office. Both sides have won legal victories. The governor filed another lawsuit late last week challenging the composition of a commission that decides whether regulations issued by Cooper’s agencies can be implemented.
Monday’s arguments centered on $17 million in federal funds within the 2017 state budget law. The details of how the legislature decided in the budget bill to spend those federal dollars, earmarked by Congress for community development, mental health and mother-and-child assistance, differed from how Cooper wanted to use them.
Cooper sued, saying state lawmakers interfered with his duty in the North Carolina Constitution to ensure laws are “faithfully executed,” even those made by Congress in directing those funds.
Lawyers for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger disagree, saying legislators had leeway to decide how the money was spent within the block grants’ broad categories. And since the money sits in the state treasury, the legislature passes laws on how to spend those funds, attorney Martin Warf told the justices.
A panel of the state Court of Appeals agreed with the Republican lawmakers last December. Cooper attorney Jim Phillips said those judges got it wrong and gave lawmakers authority delegated to the governor.
“The faithful execution is the job of the governor and the executive branch,” Phillips said Monday. “There is no room for the General Assembly’s involvement.” And Phillips said the money is not within the state treasury, but rather “custodial funds” that Congress has appropriated and Cooper decides how to spend to carry out his policies.
But Warf said Cooper is trying to create a new category of funds outside the state treasury so the money can be spent however he wishes.
Warf likened the block grant money to receiving a Target gift card for one’s birthday rather than cash. The gift card can be spent on anything within one retailer, he said, much like the block grant must be spent within a broad category.
The only limit, he told the justices, is “you cannot spend it at Best Buy or somewhere else.”
The justices, several of whom asked questions, did not say when they would rule after an hour of oral arguments. A majority of the court members are registered Democrats. Two were appointed by Cooper to their current positions.
In a 1982 opinion, the Supreme Court declined to rule whether the legislature had the authority to accept and appropriate federal block grant funds, saying it depended on the purpose and condition for each grant. While Cooper is only challenging the spending of three grants, a ruling could give him and future governors more control over federal funds.
In early 2018, the Supreme Court ruled the General Assembly violated the constitution with a 2017 law that put equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans on a state elections and ethics board. A majority of justices found it prevented Cooper from executing laws in those areas effectively. In late 2018, the justices upheld a December 2016 law subjecting the governor’s Cabinet secretaries to Senate confirmation votes.
Cooper, lawmakers back before Supreme Court debating powers
By GARY D. ROBERTSON Associated Press