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Q&A: State treasurer talks about his career, future

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, speaking at the John Locke Foundation.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell, speaking at the John Locke Foundation.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell knows how to pinch pennies in both his state government role and in his personal life. He showed up at Carolina Journal for an interview with Associate Editor Dan Way, pleased to explain a sack brimming with hot dogs. It was half-price day at Snoopy’s. Folwell spoke with characteristic wit, self-deprecating humor, and candor, supported by his ever-present stack of dog-eared graphics and flow charts bulging from his briefcase. The treasurer holds one of the most powerful positions in state government, with 21 statutory and constitutional duties — from community colleges, and pensions, to the State Health Plan, and unclaimed property. Folwell previously served four terms in the state House of and as assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce. He lives in Winston-Salem with his wife Synthia. They are the parents of Anna and Stephen. 

This is the first part of a series of interviews with Folwell. 

DW: You come from a blue-collar background. How did that experience inform your philosophy about public service? 

DF: My mother was a single parent raising three children, and I was fortunate from the age of 10 or 11 to surround myself with people who expected the best out of me, but also wanted the best for me. Sometimes when you’re in certain economic environments people want to hold you back. But I was fortunate just to be surrounded by people who, when they thought it was time for me to go, it was time for me to go do something a little bit higher, and to stretch. They taught me a lot of things. Integrity, ability, and passion. You can be world class at the last two, but if you don’t have the first one eventually it won’t matter in life if you don’t have integrity. Integrity’s about what you do when no one else is watching, and when you make a mistake, which we all do, you disclose it. You don’t wait for somebody else to discover it. As keepers of the public purse we find that integrity is just a very important word because one out of 10 North Carolinians get a check from me every 30 days. We’re paying out almost $800 million every 30 days right now — pension, health care, pharmacy, and other, just for active and retired state employees. 

The other blue-collar part is I was taught don’t let anything get between you and your work, and when people ask for volunteers to raise their hand for the toughest job always raise yours. And I can tell you this is the toughest job I’ve ever pursued. 

DW: What attracted you to public service? 

DF: In 1989 I ran for city council because I saw little things within the government of Winston-Salem that I thought my blue-collar background would bring some value to. Most of my life was either as a garbage collector, a truck loader, or a mechanic. For example, we were putting our police officers in danger by not allowing them to drive their cars home, and we were wearing out the cars quicker than we should have. As I was running for city council I was thinking about [how] could we increase the service life of a police vehicle, and make that vehicle safer, and provide visual representation of the Police Department 15 hours a day while that cop is not on the beat, back in the local neighborhood. Everybody’s behavior changes when they see a police car, whether it’s full or empty. So that’s the kind of mind set that sort of got me in public service. It often doesn’t come off well in print, but generally speaking people who go into public service think they can do something better maybe than somebody else can. I think I’m really good at this, and I enjoy it. And those are two important things to do in life. 

DW: You served four terms in the legislature, rising to speaker pro tem, the second-highest leadership position in the House. Do you ever regret leaving the legislature? 

DF: I don’t. I was highly successful — you know six of those years was in the minority party — and because when I first got to Raleigh I focused on saving lives, saving minds, and saving money, and it didn’t matter if it was Speaker [Joe] Hackney, or Speaker [Jim] Black, or President Pro Tem [Marc] Basnight, or Governor [Mike] Easley or [Bev] Perdue, who by the way, those two governors signed every piece of my legislation, 29 major pieces. But if you found a way even in the minority party to save a life, save a mind, and save money, people would listen. And then very early on I gravitated towards the toughest issues that really no one wanted to deal with, that most people thought couldn’t be accomplished, no matter what party you were a member of. So, I continued to pursue that. The reason that that’s important is we’re in an era now very similar to The Beatles back in 1965. They went off tour because literally John could not hear Paul sing, and the audience could not hear them sing, because everybody was just literally screaming past each other. So, they said if we’re just going to sing, and can’t hear [ourselves] sing, why don’t we just go back in the studio and sing, which they did. And that’s where we are in our society right now. It’s very difficult to inform people. Everybody wants to be affirmed about what they already feel about a subject. What I’ve always done in the legislature, what I did as assistant secretary of commerce at Employment Security was to inform people about how this issue of unemployment impacts everyone, even those that aren’t unemployed. That’s what I continue to do as treasurer. 

DW: You have been widely credited with eliminating a $2.5 billion unemployment insurance debt to the federal government while running the state Department of Employment Security. What practical benefit did that have for the taxpayers of North Carolina, and what did it say about your leadership abilities? 

DF: I want to be very clear. Other people were the brains, and I was the mule. But every team needs one. The credit for retiring that debt, and building this [$1 billion] surplus in 31 months goes to the employers of this state. These employers are the ones that pay in to the unemployment trust fund. The second piece of credit goes to the General Assembly, who rewrote the unemployment laws for the first time in four decades. But the third piece of credit is one that you don’t hear about often, and that is to the hard-working employees of our state agency, who generally speaking, not many had ever listened to them. They had some fantastic ideas about how to reform the system, how to keep the money away from those who didn’t deserve it, and how to get it correctly and quickly to the ones that did. But no one had ever listened to them. The third piece of credit for that reform goes to the people of that agency who came up with those ideas that seem so simple, and that’s why I carry the bowling pin around normally. That bowling pin was given to me by somebody who’s bowled 12 perfect games that worked at that agency. And it represents the fact that to a bowler, that’s not a pin, that’s a problem, and there’s 10 problems in a lane. They don’t have a ball for every problem, so they have to have clarity of thought, and they have to have things in the right sequence. That’s what I try to do as state treasurer. When we’re talking about the 26th largest pool of public money in the entire world it’s very important that we have clarity of thought, and have things in the right sequence as we try to solve these massive unfunded liabilities. There’s only 12 states as we sit here that have the triple AAA bond rating. This time next year there will be fewer. My goal is if any one state has the triple AAA bond rating that it’s going to be North Carolina. 

DW: You were the first Republican elected state treasurer in North Carolina in more than a century. What cultural and structural challenges did you encounter upon assuming office? 

DF: To some degree people didn’t think anything was wrong. When we’re the largest purchaser of health care in North Carolina, when we spend more in this State Health Plan for active and retired employees on prescription drugs and health care than is appropriated to the entire university system, or than is appropriated to Justice and Public Safety, and we have that much buying power, we should be able to do it better and more efficiently on behalf of the participants of these plans, and the taxpayers of this state. Our family premium this year for some of our entry-level employees, they have to work five out of every 20 work days of every month to pay the family premium. The largest purchaser of something ought to do it better and more efficiently on their behalf. That’s on the health plan. In terms of the pension plan, the fees, when [former treasurer] Harlan Boyles left office were $50 million a year. Last year they were $650 million a year. So, on the pension plan we set about the process of figuring out where the money was, how well it’s doing, who has it, and how much are they paying us, and are our participants, not Wall Street, getting value.