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Morning Memo: Two more headlines raise heat on McCrory administration

MORE HUGE SALARIES AT DHHS -- Secretary hired staffer from husband’s firm; McCrory’s office says he does a “helluva” good job: An adviser to state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos has been paid more than $228,000 by the state for eight months of work.

The state Department of Health and Human Services signed a personal services contract with Joe Hauck to serve as “senior adviser” at the agency. The initial contract was extended at least four times between March 1 and Aug. 1, and was modified at least once to pay him more “due to increased hours of work per day,” according to a state Department of Health and Human Services contracts website. According to DHHS, Hauck started under contract in January to work in Wos’ office. The contract is now set to expire Nov. 30, and it is capped at $310,000.

TIMING OF SHANAHAN’S DEPARTURE RAISES MORE QUESTIONS: Kieran Shanahan’s unexpected resignation as head of the state’s public safety agency in July came as he appeared to be making long-term plans to remain in the job. Three days before he resigned, efforts were underway to complete his clearance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security so that he could be designated as the state official eligible to receive sensitive information in North Carolina about terrorist and other threats.

Also, the Office of State Budget and Management planned to have a “strategic” budget meeting with Shanahan on the day before he departed, which Shanahan indicated he would attend.

***Read more details on the latest two stories to sidetrack the McCrory administration below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

Civitas: Use that $10 mil on welfare recipients not teachers

Gov. Pat McCrory’s surprising announcement Wednesday that he would not execute a newly enacted law is drawing criticism from at least one conservative group.

The Civitas Institute began Tweeting and posted a clear message on its website: “Tell Governor McCrory to enforce the law.”

McCrory said he would not let his Department of Health and Human Services begin implementing a new law that allows drug testing of welfare applicants if social workers suspect there is a reason to. McCrory had vetoed that bill, but this week the General Assembly overrode him.

The governor said the General Assembly hadn’t come up with a way to pay for the drug testing. But there is $9 million in a budget reserve that can be used for pending legislation, and this program is estimated to cost $145,000 to get up and running.

The true costs won’t be known for about a year, after the testing details are worked out. But that has no impact on the current budget.

There's also the question of a governor's authority to ignore the constitution, which requires him to carry out the law.

Civitas suggests McCrory use the $10 million he “found” to pay for bonuses for teachers who earn masters degrees and instead use it to screen welfare recipients for drugs.

Morning Memo: GOP 'stupid party,' lawmakers may restrict access to gun records

JINDAL TO GOP: STOP BEING THE STUPID PARTY: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Thursday night challenged fellow Republicans to “go after every voter” and cautioned them to “stop being the stupid party.”

“It’s no secret we had a number of Republicans who damaged the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments,” he told around 200 members and guests of the Republican National Committee at the Westin hotel. Jindal, considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, said Republicans can beat Democrats on their ideas while appealing to all Americans – beyond Washington.

***Welcome to the Dome Morning Memo -- the source for N.C. politics. Click "Read More" below for more news.***

O'Keefe to headline Raleigh conference

James O'Keefe, the conservative activist who became known for his undercover investigations of ACORN, voter fraud, Medicaid, and National Public Radio, will be the keynote speaker later this month at a “N.C. Watchdog Training” conference in Raleigh.

The two-day conference is scheduled for July 27-28 at the DoubleTree Raleigh Brownstone Hotel in Raleigh. It is being sponsored by the Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy group based in Raleigh and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Dalton leads in Democratic primary according to new poll

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton is leading in latest poll in the Democratic primary for governor.

Dalton has 32 percent, compared to former Congressman Bob Etheridge with 27 percent, and state Rep. Bill Faison with 4 percent, according to a Civitas Flash Poll. Receiving less than 3 percent were Gary Dunn, Gardenia Henley, and Bruce Blackmon.

A large bloc of voters, 27 percent, remain undecided. This is the second poll during released during the past week that shows movement towards Dalton, who has been advertising most extensively on television.

Early look at estate tax repeal effort

State lawmakers took their first look today at a proposal to repeal North Carolina’s estate tax.

Advocates for the poor say doing away with the tax would only help a small sliver of the state’s wealthiest people. But conservatives, who historically oppose the “death tax” in the first place, say steps must be taken because more estates will be taxed beginning in 2013 due to a change in federal law.

The state and federal governments currently tax estates valued at more than $5 million. That amount drops to $1 million in 2013, exposing more families to the tax on a relative’s assets when they are transferred upon death.

All of the estate taxes paid to the state in a graduated rate are currently allowed as a credit against the federal tax. But if North Carolina repeals its tax, then that money would go to the federal government.

Legislative staff has estimated that the full impact of that change would amount to a loss to the state of about $170 million by the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Personnel file: School choice group adds new staffers

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a school choice advocacy group that successfully lobbied to raise the public charter school cap in the 2011 legislative session, recently added two new staffers.

Katie Trout, the former communications director at the conservative Civitas Institute, joined the organization as a communications associate, where she will serve as an editor and writer as well as augment the group's online presence.

Bill O’Donnell, the former government liason for the N.C. School Boards Assocition, is a new education policy and research specialist. He is also a former Wake County public school teacher.

Beth Wood tops list of elected officials that nobody knows

Who is the highest ranking elected official in North Carolina that nobody knows? The award goes to Beth Wood, the state auditor. 

A National Research poll commissioned by the Civitas Institute looks at voter's thoughts on the nine elected Council of State officials and found only two -- Attorney General Roy Cooper and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall -- who were known by more than half the voters.

Wood topped the "never heard of" list (75 percent of voters), followed closely by State Treasurer Janet Cowell (74 percent), Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin (73 percent) and Superintendent of Education June Atkinson (61 percent).

Among Council of State officials, voters had the most favorable opinions of Cooper (30 percent), Marshall (29 percent), Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (21 percent) and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry (21 percent).

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton won the curious designation as the top elected official who voters knew but didn't know how they felt about (54 percent).

The voters are not happy

North Carolina voters remain in a sour mood as they head into the new year, worried about a troubled economy, according to a new survey.

Only a third of the voters think the state is heading in the right direction, while 57 percent think it is headed in the wrong direction, according to a new survey conducted for The Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based think tank with Republican leanings. Ten percent were not sure of the state's direction.

The largest group of voters (36 percent) thought the economy was the biggest issue facing the state. Other issues on people's minds were education (17 percent), the state budget and government spending (16 percent) illegal immigration (9 percent) health care (8 percent) taxes (4 percent) crime and drugs(4 percent), government corruption (4 percent) and the environment (4 percent.

The survey found that voters are divided on the job that president Barack Obama is doing with 46 approving of his job performance and 52 percent disapproving.

A strong majority(65 percent) said they favored a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Seventy-seven percent said they would back cutting taxes even if it required additional cuts in government spending if it encouraged job creation.

The survey of 600 voters was conducted Dec. 15-16 by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria Va. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Early voting momentum

Voters appear more interested in casting early ballots this year than they have in previous mid-term elections.

By Sunday evening, more than 347,000 people had voted at one-stop sites, according to the State Board of Elections.

In the 2006 general election, about 375,000 people cast one-stop ballots. Voters are on track to easily surpass that number by the time early voting ends Saturday.

So far, ballots from registered Democrats outnumber Republicans'. Democrats are responsible for about 44 percent of the turnout so far. Republicans are 38 percent and unaffiliated voters about 17 percent. 

Nearly 7 percent of white registered voters have cast early ballots, and about 5 percent of black voters have voted at one-stop sites.

According to an early voting site sponsored by Civitas, more women than men have cast one-stop ballots. In the first few days of early voting, men were leading.

The average early voter's age has dropped to 60 from 61.

Participation is heaviest in Mecklenburg, but Wake, which expanded its one-stop sites late last week, has jumped to second place.

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