State Budget Director Art Pope is becoming a frequent face at the N.C. General Assembly, especially as spending and tax issue dominate the final weeks.
At Gov. Pat McCrory’s direction, Pope crafted a compromise tax scenario in June that combined House and Senate ideas and presented it to a few House lawmakers. He worked the legislative halls and attending meetings various other times. And he attended a Senate committee meeting June 30 when President Pro Tem Phil Berger debuted the latest bill to overhaul the tax code.
His actions raise questions about whether Pope should register as a McCrory administration legislative liaison.
Pope is not registered with the Secretary of State as a liaison -- a move that would require him to report lobbying expenditures and are subject to the gift ban.
A McCrory spokeswoman said Pope is exempt under the law because his “principal duties” (in practice or in job description) do not include lobbying. The law also exempts appointed officials “acting solely in connection with matters pertaining to their office and public duties.”
“It is not unusual for a budget director to answer legislator questions, it is part of his job,” McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said in response to questions. “There are plenty of statutues to cite that clearly state Mr. Pope is exempt from registering as a legislative liaison."
Under Gov. Bev Perdue, then-State Budget Director Andy Willis did not register either, Genardo said. He was registered in 2010 and 2011 when he was the governor's lobbyist and monitored taxation, state budget and other matters, according to disclosures filed with the Secretary of State. He resigned as a liaison March 2011.
State law requires agencies to designate no more than two liaisons to lobby on its behalf.
The legislative liaisons for McCrory’s office are Fred Steen, a former state representative who lost a 2012 bid for Congress, and Nicole Hines, a former Senate staffer, records show.
Perry Newson, the executive director at the State Ethics Commission, which interprets the lobbying law, said those who don’t register are also subject to penalties.
At the General Assembly, Pope is seen as McCrory’s chief negotiator on taxes and the budget.
State Rep. David Lewis, who is leading the House tax efforts, said he has worked often with Pope on the tax bill. And Sen. Pete Brunstetter, the Senate’s top budget writer, said he has talked with Pope about the budget, too.
“I think he’s very active over there, but not as active over here" in the Senate, said Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican.
Brunstetter said there is nothing wrong with communication, but “from our perspective the appropriate separation of powers is that the legislature needs to work out its budget between the House and the Senate and send it to the governor.”
Pope is considered a firebrand to liberal groups who warred with the conservative causes he spent millions to promote, such as the tea party Americans for Prosperity.
McCrory on Monday defended Pope from his detractors, saying he “should be commended for his service” for working for $1 a year.
The governor said Pope “takes my direction” and a key part of the team negotiating the budget.
"He is a great resource for me and for this administration," McCrory said. "Let me put it this way, he is extremely capable of reviewing the details of a budget, which is especially needed when you're discussing the budget itself and tax reform.”