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Governor, lawmakers battle in court over grants, settlement

April 4, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The unrelenting power struggle between North Carolina Republicans and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper landed in court again Wednesday, this time with the two sides tangling over who controls money from federal block grants and a high-profile legal settlement.

Republican legislative majorities last summer agreed to use federal grants for health and community-development programs, and the compensation Volkswagen paid after its emissions scandal on pollution measures for diesel vehicles.

Cooper’s attorneys balked, saying the General Assembly is shifting cash designated by federal law and congressional policy to specific areas. The governor is responsible for allocating that money and lawmakers shifted more than $6 million from two federal block grants to nonprofit organizations, the governor’s attorneys said.

Cooper has sued the legislature over control of the money. At stake is more than $100 million, including about $90 million from Volkswagen. But nearly $1 billion a year in federal funds flow through the state Department of Health and Human Services, noted Martin Warf, an attorney representing Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans.

Warf argued in court Wednesday that under the state constitution, lawmakers get to decide how to spend money that is deposited in state accounts.

“This is about the balance of power,” Warf told Superior Court Judge Henry Hight Jr.

Cooper “wants some money to go differently than (through) legislative appropriation,” Warf said.

Federal block grants, including the specific ones now in dispute, have been allocated by lawmakers for decades, Warf said. The federal grants were included in state budgets approved while Democrats largely ran state government, including when Cooper was in the General Assembly.

Cooper’s attorneys argued that the General Assembly is unconstitutionally preventing the governor from making sure the money goes to its intended purposes.

In an email to The Associated Press, the governor’s spokesman Ford Porter contended that lawmakers also are infringing on the governor’s role in spending decisions involving outside funds.

“In the past, these appropriations matched the governor’s recommendation or were approved when the governor signed the legislature’s proposed budget,” Porter wrote. “If the General Assembly includes these funds in their budget process, it must follow the governor’s recommendations.”

The court skirmish is part of a larger lawsuit challenging several parts of the state budget lawmakers passed last summer. One provision requires the governor to include money in his future budget proposals for taxpayer-funded scholarships for private school tuition, which Cooper opposes.

The governor, now 15 months into his four-year term, has been fighting Republican efforts to whittle away his powers since taking office.

Cooper also has gone to court to resist Republican efforts to diminish his authority to carry out elections while increasing GOP oversight. And he has sued over laws giving civil service job protections to hundreds of political appointees given jobs by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Cooper also has turned to court to reverse measures that limit his ability to appoint state Court of Appeals judges and that force his top agency heads to win legislative confirmation.

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