Council of State September roundup

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper speaks with reporters after the Council of State meeting at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Cooper said he’s not convinced that details within a tax-cut agreement reached between Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore will protect the state from revenue shortfalls, (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

RALEIGH — This month’s Council of State news update includes raises, a retirement, complaints about a major health care system, state employee association membership levels and discussions about K-12 math achievement as well as State Board of Education policy disputes surrounding charter schools. 

Effective July 1, 2024, all Council of State positions will be receiving raises. The current salaries for these positions of $157,403 will rise 6.98% to $168,384.  

The governor is also getting a raise from $198,120 to $203,073 annually starting July 1, 2024. The raise is approximately 2.5%. 

The North Carolina Council of State (COS) is an administrative body of 10 elected officials who are heads of their departments. Council members include the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction. The governor typically leads COS meetings. 

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the retirement of North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette on Sept. 6. Joseph R. “Joey” Hopkins, the current NCDOT chief operating officer, replaced Boyette on Oct. 1. The governor also released $1 million in funding to the N.C. Department of Transportation to train more school bus drivers. Cooper released another $8 million for N.C. Pre-K program funding. The money for both items came from the federal Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools (EANS) funds that have reverted to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund. 

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new expansion at Case Farms Processing Plant in Morganton. He also participated in the State Board of Community Colleges strategic planning session held at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro. Robinson was one of three members of the State Board of Education voting down the board’s new policy to do an end-run around the law creating the new Charter Review Board, which he called “dishonest” and “being headed up by political appointees who are only trying to serve an agenda.” 

One audit on the membership count of state employee associations was released by State Auditor Beth Wood’s office in September. The audit showed drops in membership for the state’s two largest employee associations, the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the North Carolina Association of Educators. 

Wood also confirmed she plans to run for reelection in 2024 despite pleading guilty earlier this year to charges related to her hit-and-run accident using a state-owned vehicle. In pleading guilty, Wood admitted in court she had two glasses of wine at a holiday party but claimed she wasn’t impaired when she crashed into a parked car near the corner of Salisbury and Hargett streets in Raleigh. 

In Agriculture news, Commissioner Steve Troxler’s office promoted North Carolina’s Mountain State Fair, which ran Sept. 6-15 and saw a total attendance of 147,278. On Sept. 20, Troxler’s agency reminded the public that the flea market held every weekend at the state fairgrounds would be closing on Sept. 25 for this year’s N.C. State Fair. The flea market will return on Nov. 4.  

Attorney General Josh Stein announced two more opioid settlements — a $35 million agreement with Leasing Company Tempoe and a $1.37 billion settlement in principle with Kroger. He is also asking the public in the western part of the state to file complaints with his office if they are affected by the lack of certain cancer treatments for adults with leukemia and lymphoma at Mission Hospital in Asheville. Stein said his office is investigating concerns that the provider, HCA Healthcare, may not be meeting the agreements it made when it purchased Mission, and it has issued a letter to HCA on the matter. 

State Treasurer Dale Folwell reacted to Stein’s involvement in the HCA complaints by telling North State Journal he had spoken to Stein “years ago about protecting all North Carolinians from the health care cartel.” 

“Stein’s is the only fingerprint on the disastrous takeover of Mission Health by HCA,” said Folwell, who provided a January 2019 letter from Stein to Mission Health System’s president Donald R. Esposito Jr. in which the attorney general wrote he “does not object to the proposed transaction.” 

“Citizens in Western NC are under siege because he didn’t do his job,” Folwell said. “It’s time to put this transaction into ‘re-MISSION.’” 

Folwell’s office also issued a new report detailing issues with the lack of transparency in pricing by hospitals in the state. Among the findings in the report are “extreme variations” in hospital pricing, large price markups on Medicare rates, and “widespread failures” in pricing transparency for treatment and procedures, as well as wide price disparities. 

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall announced new business creations in the state for July and August had set new records compared to those months in past years. 

Nearly 16,133 new businesses were created in August and 14,324 in July. Per the secretary’s office, the previous records were 15,169 in August 2020 and 13,910 in July 2021. 

“Currently, 2023 is on pace to be the second highest year on record for new business creations, totaling 121,062 between Jan. 1, 2023 and Aug. 31, 2023,” according to a press release by Marshall’s office. “New business creations have jumped a staggering 76% since 2019 when the total through August was fewer than 69,000.” 

While Marshall touts records of business activity, a warning about processing times banner on the front page of her agency’s website states, “Due to staffing shortages, the Agency continues to work through its business registration mail backlog from the recently ended busy filing season.” The warning also says that in some cases, “mailed-in documents may take up to 8 weeks to process,” urges the public to file their documents online and to have patience while they bring business registration processing times “back to the Agency goal of 3 to 5 days.” 

Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson and some of his staff attended the 2023 Mountain State Fair on Sept. 12. Dobson also participated in the Carolina Star Safety Conference held Sept. 20-22 at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro. 

In September, the Department of Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey kicked off a Child Passenger Safety Week event in Greensboro. The event helped parents properly install child car seats and offered free car seats to families who could not afford one. Causey also announced the formation of a new investigative unit aimed at combatting disability fraud. Per a press release from Causey’s office, the new unit will be operated and staffed by the “United States Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, the SSA’s regional office in Atlanta, Georgia, the N.C. Department of Insurance’s Criminal Investigations Division and the North Carolina Disability Determination Services Division, which is a part of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.” 

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt presented student achievement and school grade data to the State Board of Education. The student data showed continued improvement, although students have not yet regained pre-pandemic achievement levels. In an interview with North State Journal, Truitt outlined her concerns on student achievement in math as well as actions she believes the legislature will take to rectify the end-run around the new Charter Review Board by the State Board of Education.