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Pension review to launch

North Carolina's pension system for state and local government employees is about to get a fresh examination.

A 13-member commission, appointed by State Treasurer Janet Cowell, will hold its first meeting in January to evaluate what changes need to be made in the system that serves 820,000 North Carolina including teachers, state employees, firefighters, police officers and other public workers, Rob Christensen reports.

Cowell appointed members of the Future of Retirement Study Commission in December. The commission was created in October by the boards of trustees of the Teachers' and State Employees' Retirement System and the Local Governmental Employees' Retirement System. The chairman is Robert Clark, a professor of management and economics at N.C. State University who specializes in aging and labor economics and pension and retirement policies.

Cowell said said the current pension system was designed in 1963 and had not been significantly changed since then. Pension systems across the country have drawn attention during the recession as funding levels have dropped and many private sector employee have been forced to delay retirement.

The first meeting will be held 9 a.m. January 25 in the Dawson Conference Room of the Albermarle Building.

Committee members include Sen. Richard Stevens of Cary; Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh; Charles Abernathy, county manager for McDowell County; Mary Bethel, co-director for AARP North Carolina; Randy Byrd, criminal investigations supervisor for the Cary police; Joseph Coletti, a fiscal analyst for the John Locke Foundation; Monda Griggs, a curriculum specialist for high schools; Darleen Johns, a Raleigh business woman; Charles Johnson, vice president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina; Shirley Morrison, human resources officer for Guilford County School; Aaron Noble, human resources director for the City of Burlington and Charles Perusse, state budget director.

Marshall attends White House event

Democratic Senate candidate Elaine Marshall attended a White House Christmas Party Tuesday night.

Marshall, who is secretary of state, was one hundreds of state officials from across the country invited, Rob Christensen reports. Other Democratic North Carolinians attending included state Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill, state Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and state Treasurer Janet Cowell.

So that means on Tuesday, three North Carolina Senate candidates were having some sort of interaction with President Barack Obama.

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr was appearing at a rally to protest the president's health care plan, Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham was taking a call from Obama in his hometown in Lexington, and Marshall was attending a White House party.

Conti says failure to communicate

Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti said his agency has not communicated well on the new financing plan for the I-485 loop around Charlotte.

The plan calls for the contractor to front $50 million of the $340 million cost. Conti emphasized that, if the contractor borrows its $50 million from a bank, the state will not back that loan.

Conti also said that the state will pay the contractor its $50 million over ten years with no interest - "an extended payment plan," Conti said in a meeting today with reporters and editors from the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer.

Conti emphasized those points in the aftermath of questions raised by State Treasurer Janet Cowell over whether the Transportation Department has the authority to add to the state's debt load.

"We just haven't communicated very well," Conti said. 

No formal opinion issued on I-485 plan

Attorney General Roy Cooper said his office never issued a formal opinion on whether the Department of Transportation can use a new financing plan to pay for finishing I-485 in Charlotte.

Both Gov. Bev Perdue and transportation officials indicated a few days after the plan was announced that Cooper's office signed off on it. The plan involves the contractor financing $50 million of the $340 million project and the state paying the company back over ten years.

"Prior to announcing the plan, we worked with the (Attorney General)’s office as we developed the design-build-finance program for completing I-485," Perdue said in a prepared statement on Nov. 24, two weeks after announcing the plan. "During this process, the Attorney General’s office indicated that our plan was legal."

Cooper said his office "provided advice as this process went along" to both DOT and the office of State Treasurer Janet Cowell, who has questioned whether the transportation department has authority to add to the state's debt. Cooper won't disclose what advice his lawyers provided. But he made clear his office was never asked for a formal opinion on a plan for 485.

"If we are given a specific plan for a written legal opinion," Cooper said, "then obviously we will do it and that opinion will be made public."

Perdue, Cooper and Cowell are all Democrats. Cooper said agencies can present ideas and get advice about those ideas and routinely do so.

"Our mission is to make sure that any financing plan be done within the law," Cooper said.

So does the DOT plan fit within the law? "We are giving advice," he said.

Cunningham names his team

Cal Cunningham, who announced his candidacy Monday, has lined up a consulting team that he hopes will help him get to the U.S. Senate next year.

He has agreed to hire Murphy Putnam Media of Washington to handle his media, Rob Christensen reports. The firm has handled advertising for such Senate campaigns as Mark Begich of Alaska, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Tom Udall of New Mexico as well as such local candidates as Attorney General Roy Cooper and Congressman Bob Etheridge. Murphy Putnam also produced the half hour bio ad for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama last year.

Cunningham's pollster will be Anzalone-Liszt Research of Montgomery Alabama which has extensive experience in North Carolina. The firm worked for Kay Hagan's Senate campaign in 2008, for Cooper, for state Treasurer Janet Cowell and for Congressmen Health Shuler and Larry Kissell.

Handling direct mail will be Pete Giangreco for the Strategy Group in Chicago. He has worked a number of presidential campaigns including Obama, John Kerry, John Edwards and Bill Clinton.

These firms are in addition to the general consultants at Nexus Strategies.

Lawyer: DOT can't borrow

A Charlotte-based lawyer hired by State Treasurer Janet Cowell's office concluded that the state Department of Transportation does not have authority to go into debt under its plan to complete I-485 around Charlotte.

Cowell's office released the opinion (see link below) Thursday as part of a public records request by the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer. The opinion is part of a disagreement between Cowell's office, which authorizes the state's debt, and the transportation department under Gov. Bev Perdue, which is trying to build the final segment of the long-unfinished highway loop.

Perdue last month announced plans to finish the road using a new financing mechanism that included the agency guaranteeing $50 million in debt by a private contractor and paying it back over ten years.

Steve Cordell, a lawyer with McGuire Woods' Charlotte office who specializes in public financing, said state law authorizes the transportation department to enter into partnerships with private companies but doesn't grant the agency or the partnership an independent authority to borrow money.


Hagan mulling action on U.S. attorney

THINKING ABOUT IT: Sen. Kay Hagan said Wednesday that she has not decided whether to hold up the confirmation of a new U.S. attorney to give the Republican appointee who now holds the position time to complete his inquiries into two high-profile Democrats. (N&O)

NEW FUND: State Treasurer Janet Cowell is starting a $250 million equity fund to invest in North Carolina companies with two goals in mind: make money for the state pension fund and create jobs in North Carolina. (N&O)

CHECK IN THE MAIL: Charlotte-based Bank of America said it is set to repay all of its $45 billion in government aid, a step that helps remove the stigma of being a bailout recipient and dials back government scrutiny of its operations. (Charlotte Observer)

Cowell's office raised early flags

HOLD THAT PLAN: Documents released by State Treasurer Janet Cowell's office Monday afternoon show her staff raised concerns nearly two weeks before the state announced a plan to borrow tens of millions of dollars from a private contractor to finish Interstate 485 in Charlotte. (N&O)

BRIDGE DEATHS STUDY: After the second person in four years plunged through a narrow gap between I-440 Beltline bridges, state Department of Transportation officials Monday launched a study of 17,000 bridges aimed at preventing similar deaths. (N&O)

BIG BILL: To pay unprecedented unemployment claims, the state has borrowed $1.4 billion from the federal government and the debt is rising. State leaders are worried about how they could pay it back, short of a forgiven loan from the federal government. (N&O)

Dome Memo: Policies and rogues

BOOT OR NO BOOT: Gov. Bev Perdue is mulling a policy that would give the boot to any of her appointees who are under indictment or who refuse to cooperate with investigators. Presumably without the policy it would be okay for appointees to continue serving while under indictment.

GOING QUIET: Sarah Palin drew big lines to a book signing at a store on Ft. Bragg on Monday. The former governor of Alaska and Republican vice presidential nominee wasn't allowed to give a speech, but she signed and greeted for hours.

THE 'HAT' DEFENSE: A state trooper fired over the loss of his uniform hat says it's unfair that so many kept their jobs after having sex on the job while he was fired because of a discrepancy in his story about where his hat went. The Highway Patrol should ask for a new reputation for Christmas.

IN OTHER NEWS: Officials in the N.C. Republican Party overwhelmingly voted against a measure that would have prohibited unaffiliated voters from participating in its primaries. Voters in both parties think politicians in both parties are corrupt, according to a poll. State Treasurer Janet Cowell has broadened new ethics rules, again in response to activity by the former chief investment officer.

Cowell was in the loop on 485

State Treasurer Janet Cowell was in the loop on a controversial financing plan to finish building Charlotte’s Interstate 485 — but she did not object until a few hours after it was announced by Gov. Bev Perdue, state transportation officials said today.

Perdue told Charlotte leaders on Nov. 9 that North Carolina would put up $290 million for a pair of I-485 projects expected to cost $340 million, Bruce Siceloff reports on his Crosstown Traffic blog.

The project contractors will be asked to finance the remaining $50 million, she said, to be repaid by the state over the next 10 years. Jim Trogdon, chief operating officer for the state Department of Transportation, said he first outlined the I-485 plan in a meeting with Cowell on Oct. 12.

She expressed enthusiasm and asked DOT officials to work with members of her staff.

"She said they were excited about the opportunity to work with us on the project," Trogdon said today.

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