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Who's ready for 2016? PPP poll puts Democrats ahead of McCrory

Less than a year into Gov. Pat McCrory's term, a new Democratic poll indicates that voters are looking for an alternative.

Public Policy Polling -- a Raleigh firm never shy about looking far ahead to the next hypothetical political contest -- tested the Republican governor against four Democrats and found the challengers all held an edge, though ever-so-slightly in certain cases.

Attorney General Roy Cooper shows the best in a potential 2016 matchup, topping McCrory by 6 percentage points. State Treasurer Janet Cowell, former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and state Sen. Josh Stein all edge the governor but within the margin of error. (From PPP: McCrory's down 48/42 to Cooper, 47/43 to Cowell, 45/42 to Meeker, and 44/42 to Stein.) The Sept. 6-9 poll has a margin of error of plus-or-minus four percent.

Pat McCrory signs remaining bills on his desk, punts on one

The regulatory measure Gov. Pat McCrory signed is one of 33 bills he endorsed Friday, the final batch from a prolonged legislative session. The governor left one measure unsigned: a bill to prevent North Carolina courts from recognizing Islamic Sharia law in family cases. In a statement, he called House Bill 522 “unnecessary.”

All told this session, McCrory signed 334 bills, vetoing two more and allowing two to become law without his signature. (The other is a measure transferring control of the Asheville water system.) Among the others signed Friday include measure to:

--Grant Republican legislative leaders the ability to intervene in a lawsuit to defend laws and the constitution, such as the state’s gay marriage ban, rather than reserving this standing to the N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat;

Cowell says state pension fund had good year

North Carolina's pension fund returned 9.52 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30th, state Treasurer Janet Cowell said Thursday.

Cowell said the return beat the 7.25 percent long-term target rate of return and the market bench mark of 8.4 percent.

The fixed income portfolio, which accounts for a third of the fund, lost 0.75 percent of rthe year and 3.61 percent for the quarter because of near record-low interest rates. She said that poses a challenge for the fund in the future.

"I am pleased that we reached a 9.52 percent return, which beats our target," Cowell said in a statement. "This is good news as we secure the retirement for thousand of North Carolina families. At the same time, the stock market is volatile and fixed income presents a long-term challenge. That's why I am glad the legislature granted additional investment flexibility so that we can take advantage of growth opportunities like credit and real estate.''

Morning Memo: GOP moves to limit early voting as budget debate begins

REPUBLICANS MOVE TO CURTAIL EARLY VOTING: Republicans are moving in the final days of the legislative session to cut early voting by a week, limit Sunday voting and curtail some voter registration efforts in a sweeping bill that is expected to debut Tuesday. The measure also may advance the state's presidential primary to a week after South Carolina's first-in-the-South contest. The last-minute election measures will appear in a Senate bill requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. (Check Dome for more on the bill later today.)

EDUCATION FOCUS OF BUDGET DEBATE: The N.C. Association of Educators is threatening to sue over the tenure provisions in the state budget. State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said for the first time in her 30-year career, she fears for the future of public education. “I am truly worried about the ongoing starvation of our public schools,” she said. “I see other states making a commitment to public education. In our state I see in this budget we’re cutting teachers, we’re cutting teacher assistants, we’re cutting instructional support.”

With education as the focus, the House and Senate will take budget votes Tuesday and Wednesday as they race toward the end of session.

***More on the state budget and other North Carolina political news below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

By one vote, Cowell's bill for pension investment flexibility survives

By a rare narrow vote, the House Finance Committee approved a bill Wednesday to give State Treasurer Janet Cowell more flexibility to invest the state's pension money, even after the panel weakened the measure.

The 14-13 vote reflects the ardent opposition from the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which is concerned about the risk of moving into alternative investments and opposes Cowell's sole management of the retirement fund.

Cowell appeared at the meeting to push to increase the current 34 percent total cap on private asset investments, such as hedge funds and real estate, saying the state's $80 billion pension portfolio is too limited to stocks and bonds. She said with the stock market at all-time highs and interest rates about to rise, the current investment strategy is not sustainable.

Janet Cowell uses CNBC interview to push for more investment flexibility

State Treasurer Janet Cowell took to national TV this week to make a case for why she needs more flexibility when it comes to managing the state's $80 million pension fund.

Cowell told CNBC's "Fast Money" on Tuesday evening that stocks and bonds are not safe bets right now. The state's retirement money is heavily invested in these areas. "Fixed income is one of the highest risk places you can have your money and that means you're not going to have the money you need for retirement if you are putting your money in bonds,” Cowell said on the show. “Alternatives look increasingly attractive given the volatility of the stock market.”

State treasurer warns lawmakers pension fund needs more flexibility, or else

State Treasurer Janet Cowell is urging lawmakers to give her more flexibility to invest the state’s pension money, warning that is is “very unlikely” returns will meet projections without the change.

In a recent letter to legislative leaders, Cowell said returns on the state’s $80 billion pension fund are in jeopardy because global stock markets are hitting an all-time high and bond returns are expected to fall. If the state doesn’t meet the 7.25 percent return rate, Cowell said the taxpayers may be on the hook to buttress the promised retirement benefits.

Document(s):
SB558 letter to General Assembly.pdf

Morning Memo: Moral Monday protesters in court ahead of 8th rally

MORAL MONDAY PROTESTERS GO TO COURT, RALLY AGAIN: The 8th Moral Monday protest starts about 5 p.m. today and Democratic Congressman David Price will attend and boost its profile. Earlier in the day, about 17 protesters are expected to appear in court -- the first hearing for any of the nearly 500 people arrested at the N.C. General Assembly during protests against the state's Republican leaders. They are likely to plead not guilty to three charges stemming from their arrest at the first demonstration in April. N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber will be one of those in court. More from AP here.

TODAY AT THE STATEHOUSE: The House and Senate convene at 7 p.m. The House has a handful of routine legislative matters on the calendar but the Senate is scheduled to take a final vote on the landfill bill, which critics say would create mega-dumps for out-of-state trash in North Carolina. Earlier in the day, the House Finance Committee will hold a much-debated public hearing on Senate Bill 315, a measure regarding water and sewer lines to a controversial development in Durham County. Gov. Pat McCrory will attend the Red Hat headquarters opening in downtown Raleigh at 10:30 a.m.

***Good Monday morning. Thanks for reading the Dome Morning Memo. Read about the Democrats' "Daddy Warbucks fantasy" and business experts reaction to the tax proposal below. ***

Morning Memo: Amid crossover, the unfinished tax plan takes center stage

HOUSE TO UNVEIL TAX PLAN OUTLINE:House Republicans plan to offer their own North Carolina tax overhaul plan Thursday that would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates and expand the sales tax to cover more services. The proposal's scope is much narrower than what Senate counterparts offered as GOP legislators try to fulfill a commitment to carry out tax reform this year.

The plan attempts to simplify income taxes and reduces the number of income tax brackets from three to one, according to the proposed legislation obtained by The Associated Press. House Republican leaders want to reduce slightly the combined state and local sales tax consumers in most counties pay from 6.75 percent to 6.65 percent. They also would subject the sales tax to a handful of new services such as automobile repairs and installations for personal property and warranty and service contracts, the bill says. In contrast, the Senate proposal unveiled last week would make the sales tax base one of the broadest in the country. More here.

NORQUIST TO BLESS SENATE TAX EFFORT: Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist will stand with Senate leader Phil Berger at a 9:30 a.m. press conference Thursday to talk about the Senate's tax rewrite. The visit is being coordinated by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group that pushing hard for a major tax overhaul measure this session. Opposition groups already are framing the visit, saying Norquist will support a bill that could raise taxes on a majority of people in the long-term. A luncheon with tax activists outside the legislature will follow later in the day.

Good Morning! This Dome Morning Memo is (unofficially) brought to you by Krispy Kreme donuts and coffee -- which is much needed after the House worked near midnight to beat the crossover deadline on a bevy of controversial bills in a 10-hour session. If you went to bed early, click below for all the North Carolina political news and analysis.***

As questions are raised, Cowell backs pension investment flexibility

A Senate committee approved legislation Thursday to further loosening investing rules for the state pension fund at the request of Treasurer Janet Cowell, just as the fund's former investment head has been writing some stinging criticism about states that have ramped up their alternatives investments, Scott Mooneyham at the Insider reports.

Andy Silton, who served as chief investment officer during a portion of the terms of former State Treasurer Richard Moore, has gone as far as to question the moves into private equity and hedge funds during his time on the job here. "Unfortunately, we went ahead and implemented a program of investing in hedge funds and private equity. While our program didn’t do any harm, it didn’t help anyone but the money managers," Silton wrote recently.

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