North Carolina’s Republican supermajority in the legislature has thrown a curveball to the state’s insurance commissioner and fire marshal, a position that until recently has mostly stayed above partisan politics.
A late change to the state’s $30 billion budget, approved last week, makes the state fire marshal separate from the insurance commissioner. As in many states, the insurance commissioner position and the fire marshal in North Carolina have been one and the same for decades, and the commissioner has worked closely with local fire departments on improving their Insurance Service Office ratings.
The governor said he will let the bill become law without his signature. The state’s insurance commissioner said he is quite unhappy with the changes.
“While I deeply appreciate the 7% raise increase over two years for state employees, I am disappointed at some of the items added to the budget that negatively impact the fire service and our volunteer firefighters in North Carolina,” state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey said in a statement Monday. “I especially detest the way these items were added without input from the department, the state Firefighters Association, county fire marshals or fire chiefs.”
He called the lack of communication between legislative leaders and his office “very disturbing,” noting that volunteer fire departments are also upset about it.
“We had no input on this and I really fail to see any benefits from it,” said Tim Bradley, fire chief in Mebane and executive director of the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association.
The head of the state association of local fire marshals said his group has not taken an official stand on the matter, but he said it does raise a number of questions for fire departments going forward.
“We were not expecting this,” said Brian Kelly, president of the North Carolina Fire Marshals’ Association. “When you think something is not probable and then all of a sudden it passes, it catches you flat-footed.”
It isn’t clear how a separated marshal job will affect local fire departments’ ability to gain better training and equipment, which could lead to higher Verisk ISO fire suppression ratings, fire officials said.
Other observers of recent North Carolina politics said the change was not all that surprising. In recent years, the GOP majority in the General Assembly has moved to strip the Democratic governor of some appointment powers, giving more authority to lawmakers. In this case, lawmakers have rubbed a fellow Republican, Causey, the wrong way.
“I have yet to meet the first person outside of the General Assembly that favors an independent state fire marshal,” Causey said.
One state official said that some lawmakers who pushed the change and who are not on good terms with the commissioner may have grown tired of seeing Causey grab headlines when he provides grants to local fire departments or when he has touted an improved ISO rating, which can affect homeowners’ premiums. Causey clashed with legislators earlier this year when he opposed a move that let Blue Cross Blue Shield reorganize to be more like a for-profit firm, giving it more control over its surplus.
“All we’ve been told is, ‘It’s politics,'” Bradley, of the Firefighters’ Association, said about last week’s budget bill. “No one can seem to explain it other than politics.”
Causey, soon to seek election to a third term, may continue to have some influence over the fire role. The new office of fire marshal will be within the Department of Insurance. The commissioner shall appoint the marshal, subject to ratification by the legislature, according to the language of the budget bill.
The new position will likely mean extra expense for taxpayers: The marshal will have a salary, set by the General Assembly, plus longevity bonuses after five and 10 years of service.
The budget bill also contains other language that has some fire and insurance officials worried. Sections of the measure require the DOI to administer a firefighters’ health benefits pilot program and a workers’ compensation fund for safety workers, but does not provide details on how the programs will be underwritten and managed, or if insurance agents can be involved.
Bradley and the commissioner hope lawmakers will revise the budget bill to clarify some things, through a technical corrections bill, before the Assembly adjourns. House Speaker Tim Moore’s office could not be reached for comment Monday.
Top photo: Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey in April, speaking to reporters about a bill to let Blue Cross Blue Shield reorganize. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)
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