Election 2012

Next N.C. governor will have tighter grasp on levers of power

The next governor will have even more power than usual

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 3, 2012 

NC Governor Debate

Democrat Walter Dalton, left, and Republican Pat McCrory shake hands prior to their third and final televised gubernatorial debate at Minges Auditorium on the campus of North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Raleigh News & Observer, Travis Long, Pool)

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

  • A new administration Democrat Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory paint different visions for how their administrations would operate if elected governor. Here’s a look at a few changes the candidates would make: Walter Dalton •  Require Cabinet members to sign private-sector-styled performance contracts and make them public. •  Restructure the chief of staff role and add a chief of operations to handle Cabinet agencies. •  Create a “director of future development” post within the governor’s office to focus on the economy. •  Designate a staffer within the governor’s office to serve as liaison to different regions of the state. Pat McCrory •  Consider a plan to “borrow” business executives for stints in government positions. •  Rely on expertise from some current Democratic administration officials during a transition. •  Create a compensation system that rewards employees for customer service.

No matter who wins Tuesday, an unusual confluence of events will give North Carolina’s next governor more power than any recent chief executive to put an immediate stamp on state government.

A new state law enables the governor to fill 1,000 state government jobs with political allies – more than double the current amount.

And a combination of legislative maneuvering and odd timing will allow the new administration to fill key posts on two powerful state boards in its first months, offering the governor the ability to shift the ideological direction and affect any family that pays an electric bill or sends children to public schools.

On the public policy end, a Republican win would likely give the GOP complete control of the lawmaking process for the first time since the 1880s and green-light measures Democrats have blocked in recent years, such as a voter ID requirement and a major tax overhaul.

The new officeholder also will receive $660,000 in taxpayer money to hire interim staffers and consultants – twice the amount that Gov. Bev Perdue received four years ago.

Such ramifications raise the stakes of this year’s gubernatorial race, putting a focus on powers that reach beyond a candidate’s style and priorities.

If Republican Pat McCrory wins, as polls suggest, major changes are expected. Republicans haven’t held the governor’s office in 20 years, and McCrory is promising a new direction to “fix a broken government.” But even if Democrat Walter Dalton takes the helm, he plans to fine-tune state government and bring in some new top officials.

“It will be a pretty big transfer of power,” said Jack Hawke, a McCrory adviser who worked for the previous two Republican governors. “It is, even within parties, but when you start changing party, it’s bigger.”

Money and jobs

The new patronage jobs will allow the next officeholder more control of the state bureaucracy than his predecessors.

The legislature this year expanded the number of patronage positions – those exempt from the civil service protections of the State Personnel Act – from about 400 to 1,000, state officials said. It applies to eight state agencies, including commerce, public safety and transportation. Perdue and former Gov. Mike Easley each used 375 exempt positions.

Another new provision in the state budget lets the governor determine the salaries of agency leaders and their top deputies. The salaries for agency leaders had been set by state law.

Republicans who authored the measures said they would give the new governor more flexibility to hire the best people for the job. But Democrats complained that the move would force out nonpolitical state workers and substitute them with administration allies.

Dalton made it a campaign issue by vowing not to use the new patronage positions. “What you are doing is firing 500 people who perhaps are doing a very good job ... and putting in your political buddies,” he said.

Dalton and McCrory pledge not to spend the extra $330,000 that GOP lawmakers put in the state budget for transition and inauguration costs.

The money comes with few restrictions on how it is spent and no clear delineation on how much is paid to loyalists of the new governor or what is spent on inauguration staging.

McCrory said he does not know whether he would use all the patronage positions – but he will likely be under pressure from party leaders to do so.

Because Republicans haven’t held executive power in two decades, McCrory will likely reach outside Raleigh to find people to help run his administration – as well as promoting from within. He said he hopes to recruit in the private sector and perhaps put in place a program where he “borrows” business executives for a set period of time. Such programs have had mixed results in other states, in part because state pay is far below private sector compensation.

Talent for transition

McCrory won’t say for sure whether he would reach across the aisle and put Democrats in his Cabinet, but he said he would rely on current Democratic officeholders he knows and respects, such as Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco and Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, until he can get his own administration up and running.

“Until I get the right people I think I need in place,” McCrory said, “I am going to be sure I use the existing talent in that transition.”

In hiring a leadership team, McCrory said he would seek people to bring a new attitude in state government to make it more business friendly.

“I want to be sure that we instill a customer-service culture in state government that works with business as a customer as opposed to an adversary,” McCrory said in an interview.

He said he would set up a compensation system that rewarded employees who displayed that kind of customer-friendly attitude.

Dalton echoed a similar theme about finding people who are accountable to the public. “We are going to be an administration that is responsive to the people,” he said.

He would make all his Cabinet leaders sign public performance contracts to better track their progress in making state agencies more efficient.

At the same time, a potential Dalton administration would mean less upheaval among the ranks of state workers.

He said he would consider keeping some state agency leaders, and many lower-level appointees would likely keep their jobs.

But Dalton said he would bring in new faces, including some from the private sector, and consider adding Republicans to his team. He declined to give specifics or names.

Impact on Duke Energy?

All new governors make appointments to boards and commissions, but the next chief executive will fill a number of key positions on high-profile boards.

Three of the seven spots on the N.C. Utilities Commission come open in the next eight months, including the chairman. The openings would come as Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility, prepares a request to increase its rates and faces a sweeping investigation concerning its merger with Progress Energy.

Dalton has supported Duke Energy projects in the past, but McCrory is even closer to the company, having worked there as an executive for 29 years until his run for governor in 2008. Critics suggest the utility delayed its rate hike request until 2013 to wait for favorable appointments from a likely Republican governor.

A prime opportunity to set education policy is also open.

In anticipation of the election of McCrory, the Republican legislature held up confirmation of three of Perdue’s appointments to the State Board of Education, which sets state policy for all public schools. Three more appointments turn over March 31.

McCrory would be in a position to get a majority on the 13-member education board if a Republican is elected either lieutenant governor or state treasurer. Both officials serve as ex-officio members.

The dynamic could set the stage for a power struggle between a Republican board chairman and a Democratic state superintendent if incumbent June Atkinson wins re-election. The new board members also could push McCrory’s education initiatives, most notably as a supporter of expanding charter schools and directing tax dollars to private schools.

But regardless of the particular issues involved, a new administration brings significant change, says Gary Pearce, who experienced two power transfers between political parties as a member of former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt’s team.

“Every new governor,” he said, “brings in a new set of ideas and people.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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