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Morning Memo: All eyes on the House, NAACP fires back at McCrory

TODAY AT THE STATEHOUSE: The budget and tax watch continues. House and Senate lawmakers are negotiating on both issues this week hoping to break the logjam. Some movement may emerge later this week. In House committees, lawmakers will discuss a power shift at the Charlotte airport, a sweeping bill to weaken environmental protections and consider four election-related bills. With the election bills, it’s not so much what’s in them now -- but how they may get amended. Talk is rampant about an highly-controversial omnibus elections bill. The chambers convene at 2 p.m. The abortion bill is in limbo but not likely to come to a House vote Wednesday -- though stranger things have happened. After a one-day delay, the Senate will debate a bill to impose drug testing and background checks on some welfare recipients.

NAACP PRESIDENT CALLS McCRORY REMARKS 'DISINGENUOUS': Gov. Pat McCrory's take on "Moral Mondays" didn't sit well with Rev. William Barber, the N.C. NAACP president who is leading the weekly demonstrations. In a statement, Barber said McCrory is trying to "play nice and move away from his original comments about Moral Monday protestors being outsiders." He compared McCrory's words to George Wallace, who dismissed segregation as a few isolated instances.

***Read more reaction below -- and get the latest North Carolina political news and analysis -- in today's Dome Morning Memo.***

Conti defends Wilson bridge

In one of his last public acts as state transportation secretary in the waning days of Gov. Bev Perdue's administration, Gene Conti went to Wilmington on Dec. 8 to preside over a bridge-naming ceremony in honor of Lanny Wilson, a Democratic Party fundraiser who was forced to resign from the state Board of Transportation in 2010 amid state and federal investigations that brought down Perdue's predecessor, former Gov. Mike Easley.

Conti defended Wilson amid criticism that he didn't deserve the honor because of his role in the events that led to former Gov. Mike Easley's felony conviction on a campaign finance charge.

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti gets national transportation award

North Carolina Transportation Secretary Gene Conti has been honored with a national award for outstanding contributions to highway engineering.

Conti was presented the Thomas H. MacDonald Memorial Award, the highest designation of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, during the group's annual meeting in Pittsburgh earlier this week.

NC DOT chief mentioned as potential Obama cabinet member

State DOT Secretary Gene Conti is mentioned in Governing Magazine's list of potential candidates to run the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Conti, who has led the state transportation department for nearly four years, is a former U.S. assistant secretary for transportation policy.

Governing says Conti's emphasis on data-driven analytics could be important in a new national transportation leader.

Update: Dome's Crosstown Traffic colleague talked to Conti.

“I’m very honored to be on the list of so many prominent transportation leaders,” Conti said Friday. “It’s a nice recognition of the work we’ve done in the last four years in North Carolina.”

Conti was en route to his home town, Pittsburgh, for the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, where he will receive the group’s highest award this weekend. The Thomas H. McDonald Award recognizes a career of service in transportation and highway engineering.

He said the mention of his name for U.S. transportation secretary was “all speculation,” but he did not dismiss the possibility.

“When the president asks you to do something, you have to give it very serious consideration," Conti said. "We’re far away from that point, I think. Nobody has contacted me about that directly. We’ll just see how it unfolds.”

Ray LaHood, a Republican and former congressman from Illinois who currently holds the position, has indicated that he might not stay on for President Barack Obama’s second term.

Correction of LaHood's former position.


Read more here: http://blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/gene-conti-mentioned-as-possible-lahood-successor-at-usdot#storylink=cpy

New governor gets to dole out the salary cash to department heads

Republican legislative leaders are in tune with the concerns of Democrat Gene Conti, who complained this week that he is underpaid as the state’s transportation secretary.

That’s why they amended the state budget this year to give North Carolina’s next governor new power to set salaries for non-elected state department heads.

“These agencies have gotten huge in terms of budget and responsibility,” said state Sen. Richard Stevens of Cary, one of the Senate’s chief budget-writers.

DOT job worth a lot more than N.C. pays, Conti says

New governors generally hire new transportation secretaries. So Gene Conti doesn’t have much reason to expect that Gov. Bev Perdue’s successor will ask him to continue running the state Department of Transportation.

And if Conti were to receive that invitation after the November election from an incoming Gov. Pat McCrory or Gov. Walter Dalton, he doesn’t know whether he would want to stay.

Conti say the job just doesn’t pay all that well,  The N&O's transportation reporter, Bruce Siceloff, reports. 

Gene Conti and Bill Clinton, his ex-boss, chat about weight loss

Gene Conti almost missed his get-well call from an old boss, former President Bill Clinton.

The North Carolina transportation secretary has been away from the office, recuperating after surgery Dec. 20 at Duke Hospital. He was about to leave home Wednesday afternoon on an errand with his wife, Betsy, when the phone rang.

Don’t answer it, Betsy said. Let’s go.

Instead, she tapped her foot while her husband chatted with his caller for about five minutes. Yes, Gene said into the phone, my doctors have had me on a weight-loss program, too. I’m walking a treadmill, just like you did.

“Who was that?” Betsy asked when he finally hung up. ...

DOT chief to undergo surgery

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti will undergo surgery at Duke Medical Center on Monday and could be out for several weeks, his office reports.

During Conti's absence, Chief Operating Officer Jim Trogdon will assume responsibility for running the department.

DOT spokeswoman Greer Beaty said the family preferred not to discuss the nature of the surgery, but he expects “a full and speedy recovery.”

AG: I-485 funding is legit

The N.C. Attorney General's office has settled a squabble between the state Department of Transportation and State Treasurer Janet Cowell over the unfinished I-485 loop around Charlotte.

Grayson Kelley, chief deputy to Attorney General Roy Cooper, wrote a letter Tuesday saying that DOT's funding plan for finishing the long-unlinked highway is legal and constitutional.

The plan, announced with considerable fanfare by Gov. Bev Perdue, included the state promising to pay the contractor $50 million of the $340 million cost over a period of ten years. Cowell, who oversees the state's debt load, said the transportation department didn't have the authority to go into debt.

Kelley wrote that there was no law and no court ruling that would prohibit the "Design, Build, Finance" plan that DOT proposed.

"We believe the General Assembly has authorized NCDOT to expedite construction in this manner," Kelley wrote.

Worrier misses Tippett

Road Worrier Bruce Siceloff says he misses the Lyndo Tippett days.

Tippett, the secretary of transportation under former Gov. Mike Easley gave Siceloff, the N&O's transportation columnist, lots to write about.

Tippett wasn't one to dwell on problems - or even to acknowledge them. He went a year without saying a word to the state Board of Transportation about DOT's most spectacular screw-up, a $22 million pavement failure on Interstate 40 in Durham.

One morning in 2007, Tippett got an earful from employees about bosses who couldn't set priorities and about new computers hobbled with old software. Then after lunch he gave News & Observer editors an earful about his proud legacy at DOT and his unshakeable self-esteem.

Current transportation secretary Gene Conti isn't as fun to needle, Siceloff said, tongue in cheek.

He thwarted the Road Worrier's attempt to embarrass him over the high-tech meltdown on a highway he hyped for its high-tech innovation, the U.S. 70 Clayton Bypass.

He admitted that DOT had goofed. Worse, he thanked the Road Worrier by name for pointing out the problem.

Then he fixed the problem. Where's the fun in that?

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