Two weeks ago, as Republican lawmakers raced through legislation that limited incoming Gov. Roy Cooper’s power, they drafted a potential perk for outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory.
Draft legislation viewed by The News & Observer shows that if it had been enacted, McCrory would have stayed on the State Health Plan after he left office, receiving free health care coverage for life.
The health care provision would have made any outgoing Council of State member eligible for free health insurance after serving at least half a term in office.
The provision did not end up in a publicly filed bill. But the provision was discussed in closed-door Republican caucus meetings last week before it was dropped from one of the bills that swept through the legislature and reduced Cooper’s authority over appointments.
“There was a great deal of empathy for McCrory: He gave it all he could,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, a Republican. “People ought to help him as much as we could.”
Daughtry and other legislators said the proposal didn’t advance far. House Speaker Tim Moore said there were too many other issues under consideration to spend much time working on the provision that would have helped McCrory, a one-term Republican.
“With all the other stuff we’ve been dealing with, that took so little bandwidth,” Moore said. “I mean, it was just a conversation about ‘this is the idea, here’s the reason,’ and the cost was just very minimal.”
Moore said the intention wasn’t to single out McCrory but to extend insurance coverage to Council of State members, noting that General Assembly members also qualify for insurance, and there has long been interest in extending that benefit to those elected department heads.
“You get folks who will leave a career in the private sector, come in for a short stint, whether it’s four years or even if it’s eight years, and they can’t fully vest for benefits,” Moore said. “If you want highly qualified people to run for those offices, it’s something you need to consider.”
The Council of State includes 10 officials who are elected statewide. Along with the governor, it includes the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, labor commissioner, state auditor, agriculture commissioner, insurance commissioner, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.
Moore said the intention was never to provide free insurance, although that is what at least one draft provision proposed.
No public discussion
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause N.C., said the idea might have merit. But he said it’s concerning when ideas such as this come up behind closed doors outside the regular sessions rather than in public meetings.
“Any time you have a surprise special session that there’s not an announced purpose, anything that’s going to come out of it is questionable because it lacks what we like to see: an open, transparent process that has thoughtful, deliberate discussion,” Phillips said.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary, said many ideas were discussed but the leadership wanted to keep the attention on the two bills that were passed, which eliminated some authority for Cooper, a Democrat, to make appointments.
“There were a number of provisions and proposals that people discussed or they offered for discussion, but for a variety of reasons the decision was not to place them in legislation,” Dollar said. “I think the legislation that was passed, the two bills that were passed, were actually fairly focused.”
‘Incredibly bad idea’
State employees must have at least five years of service paying into the State Health Plan in order to qualify for retirement benefits. They don’t qualify for premium-free insurance until they reach 20 years of service. McCrory only has his four years of state employment from his one term as governor.
The provision in a draft version of House Bill 17 – one of two bills passed in the special session – proposed to make the governor and the rest of the Council of State eligible for the health plan if they served at least two years. It also proposed that former Council of State members qualify for “noncontributory coverage” beginning in January.
Legislators wouldn’t discuss in detail how the proposal was received in Republican caucus meetings.
Sen. Andy Wells, a Hickory Republican, would not confirm whether the legislation was discussed, but said he couldn’t support such a proposal. He noted the latest report from the State Health Plan showed an unfunded liability of $32.5 billion.
“I think expanding benefits before we address that unfunded liability would be an incredibly bad idea,” he said.
Rep. Gary Pendleton, a Raleigh Republican, said he favored a variation that would have the state picking up the tab for Medicare supplemental coverage for Council of State members who had served at least two years of their four-year terms. He said such a plan would help former State Auditor Les Merritt, who served from 2004 to 2008 and then spent 10 months on the State Ethics Commission.
McCrory’s office did not respond to a request for comment.