State agencies and administration must navigate party politics

Shifts in agency leadership could create conflicts with administration

RALEIGH — Members of N.C.’s Council of State gathered Friday evening after being sworn into office over the past several weeks. The social celebration thinly disguised a political dynamic that will shift focus of much of the state government.For the first time in years, the Council of State is majority Republican with a Democrat governor. This group of officials head the state agencies and in the Tarheel State are independently elected by the people. They are separate from “cabinet members” who are appointed by the governor. Most of the issues that come before the Council of State are nonpartisan and are usually unanimous votes, but the state constitution gives the people around that table executive authority to run their respective agencies outside of the governor’s authority.And Becki Gray, senior vice president of Raleigh think tank the John Locke Foundation, notes that we should expect to see some differences emerge between this politically mixed group and the goals of the Cooper administration. “While the state constitution outlines the parameters and duties of the elected members of the Council of State, it allows for some ‘wiggle room’ for differences in the policy perspectives and political philosophies that they might bring to the table,” Gray said.The Council of State now consists of three Democrats; Attorney General and Cooper protege Josh Stein, Auditor Beth Wood, and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. On the other side of the table, some of the most hot-button topics are from agencies now led by six Republicans. Voters elected Greensboro’s Mark Johnson to replace 40-year DPI veteran and Democrat June Atkinson to head public schools. Republican Mike Causey was elected to replace Democrat Wayne Goodwin at the Department of Insurance, and veteran number-cruncher and Republican Dale Folwell will be leading the state’s Treasury. Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler and Labor Secretary Cherie Berry, both Republicans, were re-elected to their positions.Capping off the group of critical decision-makers will be Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who became the first Republican ever to be re-elected in that post. Also serving as president of the N.C. Senate, Forest has one foot in the legislative branch and one in the executive. Under the state constitution, his duties can be assigned by the General Assembly or the governor.Gray predicts N.C. will continue to see a very active lieutenant governor, if Forest’s first term was any indication, and expects that his outspoken opposition to then-Attorney General Cooper’s disapproval of N.C.’s 2012 marriage amendment, 2013 abortion law changes and 2016 H.B. 2 will continue to define their political dynamic.”Logistically, Forest will likely have a much more active and agreeable relationship with the General Assembly,” Gray said.As governor, Cooper will lead monthly Council of State meetings where the heads of the agencies report in to him about the status of key issues and agency activities. Under former Gov. Pat McCrory, the group was split six to three in favor of Democrats. This time, the leadership of the agencies has shifted, bringing up new priorities and potential conflict after a contentious election year.”North Carolina has truly been in the minority of states with one party [Democrat] being in control of nearly everything for 140 years,” said Gray. “Then it was Republican for four years, and now it is a mix. The way it is now is how things occur in most states.”The Republican-led General Assembly has not let the power shift go unnoticed. In special sessions before Cooper took office, the legislature passed a law shifting more authority over public charter schools and the public school system budget to Johnson. That law is already the target of a lawsuit from the State Board of Education, for which the governor appoints 11 of the 13 members.Despite all the political maneuvering, Folwell now holds the state purse strings, an undeniably powerful position. He says his top priorities are to reduce investment management fees by $100 million and tackle the unfunded health and pension plans. If unresolved, Folwell said as much as 20 percent of the state’s operating budget would be consumed by filling the gaps in pension and health plans over the next 15 years.”It doesn’t matter if you are drowning a little less than the guy next to you — you’re still drowning.” Folwell said.