Exile on Jones Street: Purges and shakeups, Part I

0
88

kirk rossby Kirk Ross

People in the pundit business are susceptible to looking at the inner workings of our government and seeing the hand of Shakespeare or maybe Aeschylus, whereas for the most part it fails to rise far above Boss Hogg or Matlock in terms of eloquence, finesse and plot twists.

But last week, we had a genuine scene change that could mark Act II of the McCrory Administration.

In the first real cabinet shakeup since a few hiccups in early 2013, the governor accepted the resignation of Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker and announced that Department of Environment and Natural Resources director John Skvarla would replace her.

The shift makes sense in that Decker was caught up in a fight with the legislature over a new, opaque private-public commission she pushed to do the nasty bits of recruiting behind a curtain of independence.

Legislators, by tradition, hate those kinds of things unless they set it up and appoint the members themselves. The squabble made it difficult for Decker to do even the light lifting needed for her department. She also failed to land a real blockbuster recruitment, including, most recently, a new Toyota auto plant.

But mainly, a shift at Commerce was needed because the jobs picture is just not as rosy as advertised. There is improvement in the unemployment rate, but there are troubling signs deeper in the stats in the types of jobs, the lack of wage growth and a downward drift in the number of people participating in the labor force relative to the population. The week that McCrory announced the shakeup, GlaxoSmithKline announced it was shutting down much of its R&D operation in the Triangle, some 900 high-paying jobs.

With those kinds of headwinds and the state diverging from bigger improvements in the national jobs outlook, it’s not surprising to see a purge in the economic team.

In the other part of the scene change, Skvarla, the architect of the new “customer service” focus at DENR, was a perfect choice. Under his leadership, the department has seen wholesale resignations of its most qualified leadership and environmental experts and has shown a willingness, and a times even an enthusiasm, to participate in a legislative rollback of environmental protections that have been in place for decades. With a strong fondness for his golf resort near Pinehurst, Skvarla’s style left some departing long-timers at DENR wondering if the secretary’s definition of the word “green” extended far beyond the flag and cup.

And, yeah, his most recent role in assisting the governor’s recruitment of the oil and gas industry seems a much better fit for Commerce than the state’s chief environmental protection official.

There’s no word as yet on who will replace Skvarla at the top, whether it will be an outsider from the pro-admin ranks or an insider like former McDowell County legislator and current DENR deputy secretary Mitch Gillespie.

There could be more shakeups in the works as the year changes over, particularly as the administration eyes the incoming legislature. With money short and a limit on reserves, it is not a time for more turbulence for McCrory.

With that in mind, the most likely candidate to suddenly develop an unstoppable urge to spend more time with the family is Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos. Her departure has been often rumored, but she’s hung in there, plus, the governor thinks she’s swell.

If she sticks around, Wos will play a key role in the ongoing battle over the state’s Medicaid system. Here, too, the fight is organizational — one plan is to spin off Medicaid into a separate agency — with competing ideas and egos from DHHS, the state House and the state Senate and competing lobbyists from providers, insurers and big and small hospital organizations.

Wos, who has had a combative relationship with the Senate leadership, may prove to be too big a liability going into the session, especially if the governor is considering anything major.

Either way, we should know soon. The session is less than a month away and the holidays are a perfect time for a little late afternoon news dump.

Stay tuned.