Under the Dome

November 18, 2013

Morning Memo: McCrory to host Facebook town hall, visit California

Gov. Pat McCrory will hold a question-and-answer session on his Facebook page Monday. The event coincides with his visit to the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Monday.

Gov. Pat McCrory will hold a question-and-answer session on his Facebook page Monday. The event coincides with his visit to the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Monday.

The governor’s office announced on Sunday that McCrory would travel to California, first visiting Google’s headquarters at 10:15 a.m. in Mountain View before stopping at Facebook at 2 p.m. The purpose of the visit was not disclosed. But the governor’s office said McCrory will meet with executives and employees from North Carolina.

The Facebook Q&A starts at 5:30 p.m. on his page at facebook.com/GovernorPat

***Get a full roundup of North Carolina political news and analysis below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: As the governor spends the day in California, the N.C. NAACP will hold a rally in Salisbury at 5 p.m. as part of its “Moral Monday” statewide tour. Attorney General Roy Cooper will address the N.C. Journalists Roundtable on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill at 9:30 a.m.

ARTHUR RICH TO RUN AGAINST BUTTERFIELD: Republican Arthur Rich will announce Monday that he will challenge Democrat G.K. Butterfield in the state’s 1st Congressional District. Rich will make his announcement at 9 a.m. in Goldsboro, noon in Greenville and 4 p.m. in Elizabeth City. Rich finished fifth in a five-way race for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 2012. In a statement, he said he would focus his campaign on the need for economic regeneration in the district and the failure of his opponent to adequately represent his constituents. "On its current pace, if not checked, Obamacare will destroy the nation. My opponent voted for this disaster and in the past has not been forthright with the people over allegations of personal misuse of taxpayer monies," Rich said.

N&O INVESTIGATION -- Out of the spotlight, public officials make big pay: Raleigh Housing Authority Executive Director Steve Beam’s annual compensation grew as high as $280,690 in 2011. He leads a staff of about 150 with a $50 million budget. Beam belongs to a select group of public officials across North Carolina who receive big pay and benefits to run authorities, commissions or institutions that are overseen by political appointees and draw little public scrutiny.

This class of officials emerged in a News & Observer analysis of pay data for 435,000 employees from 1,216 state and local agencies; the officials with surprisingly high pay run housing authorities, community colleges, a city utility, and even a local tennis complex. During the prolonged economic slump, many local employees have received meager raises, while state employees and teachers have gone five years with only a 1.2 percent raise from the state. But these public executives have done better:

• In Fayetteville, Steven Blanchard, general manager of the Public Works Commission, was paid more than $310,000 last year, about $100,000 more than either the city or county manager.
• In Greensboro, Tina Akers Brown, the Housing Authority director, received at least $242,000 in 2012, putting her among the top-paid employees in Greensboro or Guilford County government that year. Brown did not provide full compensation information despite numerous requests.
• In Charlotte, Tim Newman, the Regional Visitors Authority’s top executive until 2011, received as much as $334,520 a year. He resigned after scrutiny of his management practices that included inflated attendance projections for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He had been demoted to a sales position, but when he quit, the bureau agreed to pay him severance worth about $142,000 and $29,000 for unused vacation time. His total for fiscal year 2012 was $350,165.

In many of these cases, the boards that oversee these executives say the pay is well-deserved. They say the institutions are well-run, with clean audits and few public complaints. They also cite pay surveys that show their executives’ pay is in line with pay of leaders at similar institutions.

INSIDE THE INVESTIGATON: The pay deals are often done behind closed doors, with little explanation afterward. That’s because the state’s personnel law considers evaluations private. In Beam’s case, board minutes for several years – recorded by Beam – merely noted a closed session about “personnel matters.” No pay details were provided.

In at least two cases, these local boards have maneuvered to get around salary restrictions set by a state agency and the U.S. Congress.

Public records provided to The N&O show these officials’ pay is often augmented by perks that rank-and-file employees never get, or receive in much smaller amounts. The chief executive officer of a government-created nonprofit that purchases electricity for municipalities, for example, has been receiving a $53,000 bonus each year just for staying on the job.

Some have received housing stipends exceeding $40,000 a year, and two have received payments of more than $40,000 toward an annuity in addition to public money invested in their state pensions. At least one official has a car allowance topping $20,000 a year and is among others with additional health care coverage worth several thousand dollars a year. Some of these salaries are boosted by longevity payments that add as much as 7.5 percent.

The pattern of high pay for public officials in lower-profile entities emerged when The N&O obtained four years of data for every state and local employee in the state pension system. This information had not been available until 2010, when lawmakers made more information about employees’ pay available to the public in response to a series of reports in The N&O. Read more here.

AN INFLUENTIAL VOICE ON IMMIGRATION: From columnist Rob Christensen -- Farmers such as John Barnes need Latino laborers to harvest the sweet potato crop in Nash County. High-tech entrepreneurs such as SAS’ Jim Goodnight of Cary rely on a supply of American-educated software engineers and statisticians from South Asia. This is called supply and demand. If there were native-born Americans lined up for those jobs, they could be hired. Similar stories could be told in the construction and hospitality industries.

All the liberal activists in the world praying and fasting on the National Mall – as they did last week – are unlikely to have much of an effect on the Republican-controlled U.S. House when it comes to changes in the immigration laws. But businessmen, lawmen and evangelical preachers might. Read more here.

CLEVELAND GIVEN ‘MR. REPUBLICAN’ AWARD: The N.C. Republican Party honored state Rep. George Cleveland with its 2013 “Mr. Republican” award. The Jacksonville lawmakers is serving his fifth House term and is a 25 year Marine Corps veteran. Presented at the party’s Hall of Fame Dinner on Saturyda, the award he won is named after another former state and federal lawmaker, Charles Raper Jonas, who earned the title Mr. Republican for his work to build the party.

Cleveland made headlines in 2012 for saying there is no “extreme poverty” in North Carolina, a comment that drew rebuke. See the other honorees here.

2014 -- TEA PARTY OR HEALTH CARE: Charlotte Observer editorial writer Taylor Batten: “What’s a bigger political loser: Obamacare or the tea party? We in North Carolina are about to find out.” Read more here.

CONGRESSIONAL HEALTH CARE HEARING SCHEDULED IN NORTH CAROLINA: Congress is coming to Gastonia this week. U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-Cherryville, announced that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a public field hearing on the Affordable Care Act Friday at 10 a.m. at the Gaston County Courthouse, 325 N. Marietta St., Gastonia.

The title of the hearing is “Obamacare Implementation: Sticker Shock of Increased Premiums for Health Care Coverage.”

McHenry’s office said the hearing will examine the impact of the health care law implementation on the price of insurance premiums in North Carolina. McHenry is a member of the oversight committee. Read more here.

FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER EDITORIAL: “Gov. Pat McCrory and Tony Tata, his transportation secretary, have said from the start that their new highway funding formula would use scarce dollars where they were needed most. It's a good applause line, but its weakness is right there in front of you: the presumption that they know where those scarce dollars are needed most.” Read more here.

NEW CLAIMS IN REDISTRICTING LAWSUIT: Three North Carolina voters have mounted new accusations of racial gerrymandering in a federal lawsuit challenging the shapes of Congressional Districts 1 and 12. Republicans at the helm of both N.C. General Assembly chambers led the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts in 2011. Voter rights organizations challenged the new maps in state court, and a three-judge panel upheld the new boundaries in July, though the case remains on appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. Read more here.

WATT CONFIRMATION TROUBLES KEEP 12TH DISTRICT RACE IN LIMBO: For months, candidates looking to succeed U.S. Rep. Mel Watt have been organizing, raising money and preparing for a tough campaign.

But now they're stuck in political limbo, with U.S. Senate Republicans recently blocking Watt's confirmation path to a key mortgage regulatory post. The candidates say they hope he'll still get confirmed. But they also know that Watt, a Democrat, might run for re-election in the 12th Congressional district. Read more here.

Key Development: INSURER TO REINSTATE POLICIES: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, the state’s largest insurer, will allow tens of thousands of customers to stay on lapsed health policies next year to provide relief from steep price increases or prevent the loss of their health insurance coverage.

The company’s announcement Friday comes a day after President Barack Obama urged insurers to extend this year’s insurance policies through 2014, as pressure mounted to alleviate the crisis prompted by problems with the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature domestic policy. Blue Cross had notified 151,640 policy holders in recent months that their health plans will be phased out and replaced by new policies in January. Many of those customers were told their rates would double, or even triple, for health insurance that met the legal requirements of the new health care law. Now those customers will have at least one year’s reprieve. Read more here.

PUPPIES -- AKA POLITICAL GOLD FOR McCRORYS: Although sponsoring a dog adoption has all the earmarks of a cynical public relations ploy – talk about warm and fuzzy images – there was a serious policy message at its core. The McCrorys used it to highlight a bill pending in the legislature that would set minimum standards for large, commercial dog-breeding facilities.

Known as “the puppy mill bill,” it would require breeders with 10 or more female dogs to provide daily exercise, fresh food and water, veterinary care and, if necessary, euthanasia that is “performed humanely.” The bill passed the state House in May with bipartisan support but languished in the Senate. Many of the dogs available for adoption on Saturday were “rescue dogs,” including some taken from a Pender County puppy mill that recently was busted. Dogs also were provided by the Wake County SPCA, Humane Society of Charlotte and Guilford County Shelter. Read more here.

HAGAN USES BIDEN FUNDRAISER TO HIT TILLIS: Avoiding the federal health care law, Kay Hagan pivoted Friday to focus on secretive political groups attacking her and the controversial policies pushed by the Republican-led state legislature, noting new laws restricting abortion, voting, jobless benefits and more.

It’s an attack on her main Republican challenger, House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is getting support from Republican strategist Karl Rove.“For those of us in North Carolina, we saw firsthand what the Koch brothers and Karl Rove’s foot soldiers in Raleigh are willing to do to push their fringe agenda,” she said, mentioning the recent ads against her from outside conservative groups. “These guys are trying so hard to take my seat because they had great results with fringe, ultraconservative legislation that I have opposed.

“They want a politician whose strings they can pull to promote the same dangerous policies in Washington.”

Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said Hagan is trying to change the subject “away from the fact that she spent an afternoon cozying up yet again to the Obama administration.”

“It’s a desperate attempt to dodge the fact that she has apparently misled North Carolinians on the implications of Obamacare for years,” he said. Read more here.

A FUNDRAISER THAT SAYS A LOT: Freshman House lawmaker Chris Malone is hosting a fundraiser Dec. 5 at Tyler’s Restaurant and Taproom in Raleigh with interesting political ramifications. First, former Public Safety Secretary Kieran Shanahan is a host.

The others include: Reps. Edgar Starnes, David Lewis, Tim Moore and Mike Hager. Notice a theme? All are vying for the House speakership in 2015. Expect them to make the rounds across the state in the next year as they try to help colleagues raise money and establish themselves as a front-runner. The fundraiser’s minimum ticket is $50 and top tickets are $1,000.

NEW LAW ALLOWS RATE HIKES WITHOUT HEARINGS: Aqua North Carolina, the state’s biggest private water utility and frequent target of customer ire, is pushing to switch to a new method of raising customer rates without public hearings.

If approved, it would be a first in North Carolina, based on a new law passed without opposition this summer by the state legislature. Now before the N.C. Utilities Commission, the question of public hearings involves a number of current and former regulators with ties to the water utility industry. Read more here.

ADOPTION ADVOCATES HOLD OUT HOPE: Rescuing children whose families have broken down is always a challenge: Foster parents and permanent homes are hard to find.

But there is renewed interest in stabilizing those children’s lives among North Carolina legislators of both parties. Earlier this year, lawmakers allocated $6.75 million for two adoption promotion programs, established two panels to explore what works and what doesn’t, and passed a foster care children’s bill of rights. What remains to be seen is whether those measures are enough to make a difference, especially when families are struggling under economic pressures for a variety of reasons, including state policies that make it harder on the unemployed and those without health insurance. Read more here.

HEAVY CASELOADS RAISE RISKS OF MISTAKES: Accurate autopsies help ensure that murderers don’t go free, that suspects aren’t wrongfully prosecuted and that spouses receive the life insurance payments they deserve. But in North Carolina, heavy caseloads are raising the risk of errors, an Observer analysis has found.

Pathologists in North Carolina’s thinly staffed medical examiner system do as many as 10 autopsies in a single day, records show. Experts say thorough autopsies typically take two to four hours each, so it’s hard for pathologists to do more than four in a day. The Observer also found that pathologists in the state’s chief medical examiner’s office in Raleigh routinely do more than 250 autopsies a year – heavy caseloads that experts say can lead to mistakes. Read more here.

RALEIGH MAYOR SAYS McCRORY ADMINISTRATION IS DELAYING DIX PARK DEAL: Mayor Nancy McFarlane is asking Gov. Pat McCrory to take a “more direct role” in efforts to craft a new agreement for Raleigh’s planned park on the Dorothea Dix property. In a letter to the governor that she released Friday, McFarlane said she’s concerned that state agencies involved have created a “pattern of delay” that has “disrupted and will continue to disrupt our abilities to meet our goals.” Read more here.

N.C. MAN BUYS TROVE OF KENNEDY MEMORABILIA: On Friday morning, North Carolina native Jim Warlick will step out of the old Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and cross the sidewalk to his white 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible. It will be parked in front, just where it was on another Friday 50 years ago.

On that morning, Nov. 22, 1963, the sky was clearing as a smiling President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie Kennedy, radiant in a pink wool suit and matching pillbox hat, strode out of the hotel and slipped into the same white convertible. Squeezing into a red leather seat alongside Gov. John Connally, they joined a motorcade that wound through streets lined with cheering crowds to Carswell Air Force Base.

There they boarded Air Force One for the fateful, 13-minute trip to Dallas. The Lincoln convertible will return to the hotel this Friday with Warlick, its new owner.

The Morganton native bought the car at auction last month for $318,000. He also paid $210,000 for a black 1960 Lincoln that was in Kennedy’s White House motor pool. Neither was the car Kennedy was riding in Dallas. The cars were part of a trove of Kennedy items he bought, including two rotary-dial phones from the president’s Fort Worth hotel room, the pen he used to sign the 1961 Peace Corps Act and a bathing suit that belonged to Jackie. Read more here.

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