By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature is moving to strip powers from the state's governor three weeks before Democrat Roy Cooper is set to succeed a member of their party in the executive mansion.
Lawmakers on Thursday began debating a bill to require Senate confirmation for cabinet appointments, reduce by 1,200 the number of state employees the governor could hire and fire at will and eliminate the governor's power to pick certain university trustees.
The legislation came as a surprise, filed late on Wednesday on the heels of a special "lame duck" session of the General Assembly called to consider relief for Hurricane Matthew victims.
Cooper, scheduled to be sworn in on Jan. 7 after defeating incumbent Republican Pat McCrory by 10,000 votes last month, said the proposals were aimed at holding him back.
"Most people might think that this is a partisan power grab, but it is really more ominous," Cooper said at a news conference in Raleigh on Thursday. "This is about thwarting the governor's ability to move us forward on education and health care and clean air and water."
Cooper, currently state attorney general, said his office was reviewing the proposals and would sue if lawmakers approved any measures he believed were unconstitutional.
Republicans called the changes justified by the state's constitution. Senate confirmation hearings were held earlier in the state's history, they said.
"Some of the stuff we're doing, obviously if the election results were different, we might not be moving quite as fast on, but a lot of this stuff would have been done anyway," Representative David Lewis, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, told the News & Observer on Wednesday.
A House of Representatives committee voted on an unrecorded voice vote to advance the bill on Thursday, as about 100 people gathered at the legislature to demonstrate against the proposals.
North Carolina, the ninth most-populous U.S. state, has been roiled by sharp political divisions. The state voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and then turned to the right, electing McCrory in 2012 and Republican super-majorities in its state legislature.
The state became a target of boycotts by companies, musicians and sports leagues after it passed a law this year restricting bathroom access for transgender people in government buildings and public schools.
(Reporting by Marti Maguire; Writing by David Ingram; Editing by Dan Grebler)