Under the Dome

November 20, 2013

Morning Memo: McCrory administration hire’s qualifications questioned

The naming of a political appointee to run North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund is drawing criticism from environmentalists who say he doesn't meet the minimum legal requirements for the job, AP reports.

The naming of a political appointee to run North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund is drawing criticism from environmentalists who say he doesn’t meet the minimum legal requirements for the job, AP reports.

Bryan Gossage began work Nov. 5 as director of the state’s newly created Office of Land and Water Stewardship, which includes the clean water fund. Gossage’s hiring, which was not publicly announced by the agency, was first reported Monday by N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group. He will be paid $78,000 a year.

The taxpayer-supported fund, with a current budget of $10.4 million, buys environmentally sensitive land for conservation and supports other clean water initiatives. State law says the director must have “experience and training in conservation, protection, and management of surface water resources.”

Gossage, 38, has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and has previously worked in marketing and public relations. In May, he was named as a deputy secretary in charge of innovation support at the N.C. Commerce Department, a job that went away following a reorganization of that agency. However, Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman Drew Elliot said Gossage meets the legal qualifications for his new post because he served six years as a town councilman in Apex, which included oversight of municipal operations that included a water treatment plant. “The statute doesn’t say anything about being an expert in the field,” Elliot said.

FAMILY CONNECTION: In 2008, Gossage campaigned unsuccessfully as a Republican for the N.C. House. His wife, Chloe Gossage, is the policy director for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, making $110,000 a year. Elliot said Bryan Gossage was not available for comment Tuesday. Read more here.

*** More Senate race news and North Carolina political analysis below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory spends another day in Arizona at the Republican Governor’s Association meeting. ( Read more about his western trip this week.) Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers and legislative staff are in Arkansas looking at fracking operations. Also, the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee will meet at 1 p.m. in room 544 of the Legislative Office Building.

Phil Berger Jr. will announce his congressional bid at 11:30 a.m. in Reidsville. Expect questions about why he supported the government shutdown and his political name. Democrats are ready for him. A statement set for release Wednesday is titled: “It’s a boy! Baby Berger announces run for Congress.” The quote: “As if one Berger wasn’t enough, here comes Junior,” said Micah Beasley, a N.C. Democratic Party spokesman.

DEAN SMITH TO BE HONORED: Dean Smith, the former North Carolina basketball coach whose teachings and philosophy inspired legions of players and colleagues, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday during a ceremony in Washington.

Smith, who in recent years has been affected by a degenerative neurological disorder, will not attend the ceremony but will be represented by family members, friends and former colleagues, including Roy Williams, the UNC coach who served as an assistant under Smith for 10 years. Read more here.

BLUE CROSS WILL RAISE RATES ON “KEEP IT” PLANS: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina said Tuesday that it will raise rates as much as 24 percent on 2013 individual health insurance plans that are being extended next year.

The increase is double the price inflation for the same health plans just a year ago, but many Blue Cross customers who have grumbled about rising costs in past years are cheering the news this time. The health plans in question were slated for elimination under the Affordable Care Act, the nation’s health care law, but Blue Cross said last week it would offer the plans next year. President Barack Obama urged insurers to extend the individual plans for one year amid a public outcry over forced cancellations and steep price increases for replacement plans.

The N.C. Department of Insurance will review the proposed rates and, if it determines they are too high, it could order Blue Cross to issue refunds to customers. The agency has not set a deadline to review the proposed rates, which go into effect Jan. 1. “The key thing is – this is one more year,” said Blue Cross spokeswoman Michelle Douglas. “It’s not saying you can keep this plan forever.” Read more here.

POLITICAL GIMMICK ALERT: Democrats greeted Karl Rove and Thom Tillis in Cary with a tried-and-true political gimmick: a mascot. The state Democratic Party had a staffer wear an oversized dog costume to drive home it’s line: “Thom Tillis is a lapdog for special interests and they have him on a short leash.”

KAY HAGAN CHANGES THE SUBJECT: Channeling her comments last week at a fundraiser with Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is talking tough on outside spending. In a series of emails, Hagan is warning supporters about the vast sums her critics will spend to defeat her re-election bid in 2014.

One example: “In 2012, North Carolinians got a taste of what Citizens United-fueled spending can do to our elections. Our judicial elections were flooded with more than $2 million in outside spending. And that’s just a small fraction of what outside interests are going to spend this time around. So far, 80,000 people have joined me and my colleagues in calling for an end to Citizens United. I think we can grow that support even further. And for that, I need your help. Add your name to tell Congress we need to take back control of our campaign finance system.”

Like her speech Friday in Chapel Hill, the topic is far from the federal health care law problems in Washington. And it also ignores that Democrats, too, will spend millions to help her keep her seat.

WAKE COUNTY GOP SAYS DEMOCRATS TO BLAME FOR TEACHER PAY: The Wake County Republican Party is telling supporters that Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue are responsible for state’s low teacher pay, which ranks near the national bottom. In an email, the county party Chairwoman Donna Williams shows a downward-trending chart with the two governor’s pictures. “In 2014, the trend will be reversed thanks to Pat McCrory and the Republican legislature,” it says.

The verbiage raises the stakes for the 2014 legislation session. Even though Republicans are expected to advocate for teacher pay hikes, it’s unclear whether it would be enough to move the needle. The email also doesn’t mention ending teacher tenure or incentive pay for advance degrees, which Republicans pushed this year.

A KINDER, GENTLER McCRORY?: So says Rob Schofield, a columnist at N.C. Policy Watch, a publication critical of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory – “A look at the revamped public image the Governor has been trying to project in recent weeks seems to indicate as much. Gone suddenly, is the harsh, beleaguered, “everyone is out to get me” McCrory who approved and lamely tried to explain and defend draconian policy changes cooked up by his budget director and the General Assembly and then lashed out venomously and, at times, dishonestly at critics and imagined conspiracies. ...

“And puppy love is not the only component of the Governor’s new, kinder and gentler image. On issue after issue, the new McCrory is substantially “touchier-feelier.” Whether he’s suddenly talking about public school teachers having “legitimate gripes” and hinting at pay raises for 2014 after slashing education in 2013, touting food banks or even publicly honoring a crusading African-American civil rights hero (albeit, weirdly, with one hour’s notice to the media and the public), McCrory has started to more closely resemble the cheerleading, back-patting politician who presided over the Charlotte City Council for 14 years than the crusading, right-wing ideologue who dominated the news during the spring and summer.” Read more here.

N&O investigation Day 3 – PUBLIC PAY INCLUDES BONUSES FOR SOME: Unlike almost all of Cary’s 1,200 employees, however, (Sean) Ferreira has an arrangement with the town that usually pays him more in bonuses than salary; in the last fiscal year, that bonus topped $71,000. His total pay of $131,377 nearly rivaled that of the town’s fire chief, and it was $22,000 more than the parks and recreation director.

The bonuses represent an incentive arrangement that pays Ferreira more money if the Cary Tennis Park brings in more revenue. Under his watch, the 13-year-old center’s revenues have improved, but the facility still operates in the red, with an annual deficit hovering around $275,000 during a recent five-year period.

Ferreira is among roughly 40 state and local employees in the state pension system who received bonuses of $20,000 or more in 2011, the most recent year available statewide, according to The News & Observer’s analysis of pay data for more than 435,000 public employees. Read more here.

TREASURER’S OFFICE LACKS STAFF TO CONTROL WASTE: The state pension system has little fraud, waste or abuse, but it lacks the staff and policies to keep waste under control, a new consultant’s report states.

Buck Consultants, a human resources firm based in Dallas, said the state treasurer has a good system and a dedicated staff, but that’s not enough to avoid abuses such as pension spiking, the practice of raising pensions through system loopholes. The consultants found, for example, that the treasurer’s staff does not investigate pay for possible spiking unless it immediately grows by more than 250 percent from the average of the previous year. In cases where pensions are incorrectly calculated, the treasurer’s office can reduce them.

That threshold for checking should be much lower, the report states, but it’s at that level because the office lacks staff. Read more here.

DHHS MEDICAID BILLING SYSTEM REMAINS TROUBLED: State officials said the troubled Medicaid billing system NC Tracks is operating more smoothly, but lawmakers said it still has significant problems.

Doctors, hospitals and others who treat Medicaid patients began complaining about a new computer system as soon as the state started using it July 1 to pay health care bills. State officials have worked to reassure health providers and legislators that it is fixing problems and sending providers their money. “I continue to stress to our team, and our vendor, that we must get providers paid for the work they do,” DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos told a legislative committee Tuesday.

Some areas of concern remain, she said. Read more here.

The Big Story – STATE OFFICIALS LAUNCH PROBE INTO CHILD ABUSE CASE: State officials announced Tuesday that they will examine how Union County handles child-welfare cases after a boy living with a county child-protection supervisor and her boyfriend was handcuffed to a porch with a dead chicken tied to his neck.

Wayne Black, director of the Division of Social Services in the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency will review the practices of the Union County DSS. It will also study records of all the children placed under the care of Wanda Larson and Dorian Harper of Monroe.

Larson and Harper face child abuse and other charges after a deputy discovered a child living with the couple chained to the front porch in freezing conditions Friday morning.

Larson, a child-protection investigations supervisor with the Union County DSS, also has been charged with failing to do her job as a public employee. She has been suspended from her job and is jailed on $525,000 bond. Harper, her longtime partner, is jailed on $500,000 bond and has been put on administrative leave from his nursing job at CMC-Union. Read more here .

JORDAN LAKE COMMITTEE STACKED, CRITICS WARN: The inter-regional political fight over Jordan Lake is churning again, and upstream legislators who want to delay or loosen environmental rules in favor of “technological solutions” may hold the advantage in the next phase.

Elected officials from Greensboro and Burlington are the largest voting bloc on the legislature’s Committee on Jordan Lake, making up half the panel that will guide a revamp of the multibillion-dollar Jordan Lake rules environmental program. The areas that use or plan to use Jordan Lake’s drinking water will be outnumbered on the board, holding three of its 10 regular seats.

To Elaine Chiosso, an environmentalist who heads the Haw River Assembly, the board’s makeup doesn’t adequately represent downstream users. Downstream representation is important, Chiosso said, because upstream cities are heavily affected by pollution-control rules and have greater incentive to undo them. Read more here.

SCHOOL NOT PART OF DIX DEAL: The city’s new deal for a park on the Dorothea Dix property won’t include any land from the nearby Governor Morehead School for the Blind, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said Tuesday.

The 40-acre campus across Western Boulevard from Dix came into play this summer as part of a compromise deal on the Dix lease, which Republican legislators sought to revoke. Because Republicans want to keep about 30 acres at Dix for state offices, Raleigh was offered an option to buy land across the street. Read more here.

McCRORY ADMINISTRATION HONORS STATE WORKERS: The governor’s 2013 Awards for Excellence – The late Julius Chambers, former N.C. Central University chancellor, received the Spirit of North Carolina award. Outstanding State Government Service: Herbert Berg, UNC-Wilmington; Efficiency & Innovation: Steve Clark, UNC-Charlotte; Matt Criscoe, Wildlife Resources Commission; Customer Service: Heather Lewis, Department of Health & Human Services; H uman Relations: Surry County Community Corrections, the late Wanda West, Department of Environment & Natural Resources, Kimrey Rhinehardt, UNC-Chapel Hill; Public Service: Landric Reid, Department of Public Safety; Safety & Heroism: Ricky Bradley, Chris Painter and Jason Ray, Department of Transportation; Ronald Houston, Department of Public Safety, Stephen Hunter, Department of Public Safety, David Peterson, Department of Public Safety, Reggie Barker, Richard Rains and Benjamin Smith, Wildlife Resources Commission, Eva Telles, N.C. State University. Read more about why they won here.

PHOTO RECALLS A MORE INNOCENT POLITICAL TIME: Terry Howard was standing at the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Kings Drive that September afternoon when the passing motorcade slowed to a stop in front of him.

The 20-year-old machinist found himself a few feet from the 1960 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kennedy. “All I had to do was stand on the curb and reach out,” he recalls. “I said ‘Welcome to Charlotte, Mr. President.’ (He) shook hands and said ‘Thank you.’ ”

... This week, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas, Kennedy’s 1960 visit is a poignant reminder of a more innocent time. That afternoon, according to news reports, he drove through downtown to east Charlotte in the back of a Lincoln convertible. He passed close enough to waiting admirers to grab babies and shake hands with people like Terry Howard. The visit, which drew 12,000 people to the old coliseum and thousands more to the streets, was remarkable for an impromptu intimacy that no longer exists today when security concerns usually prevent casual encounters. Read more here.

A CHANGING NORTH CAROLINA: Rob Christensen – writing in his new home in Wednesday’s paper, in addition to his Sunday column: Howard Fuller is an elderly, distinguished-looking educator, the former superintendent of the Milwaukee public school system and a leading national advocate for charter schools and tax-paid vouchers to help poor children attend private schools.

One would never guess by looking at him today that he was deemed one of the most dangerous radicals in North Carolina in the 1960s, regularly denounced by North Carolina’s and South Carolina’s congressional conservatives. Fuller, now 72, drew a packed house last week at the headquarters of MDC, a jobs and training program in downtown Durham. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the North Carolina Fund, the pioneering anti-poverty program started by Gov. Terry Sanford. ...

JIM GARDNER TIME WAS: Jim Gardner, the rising star in the conservative movement in North Carolina, called the North Carolina Fund “a political action machine” and called for an investigation of its “meddling in the affairs of local communities,” according to “To Right These Wrongs,” a history of the fund by Robert Korstad and James Leloudis.

Gardner took particular exception to Fuller for giving “inflammatory speech(es) in which he advocated the use of black power.” Read the full column here.

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