NC’s new budget director a ‘quick study’

On Thursday, North Carolina Budget Director Lee Roberts, right, and Gov. Pat McCrory, left, will outline the administration’s spending plan for the next two years.
On Thursday, North Carolina Budget Director Lee Roberts, right, and Gov. Pat McCrory, left, will outline the administration’s spending plan for the next two years. cseward@newsobserver.com

Lee Roberts is not the lightning rod his predecessor was.

The state’s budget director since September, Roberts has had limited interaction with the media, isn’t registered with a political party, has made relatively few campaign donations – and the political money he has given was to help candidates on both sides of the aisle. This is also his first time on a government payroll.

Roberts steps into the spotlight for the first time on Thursday, when he’ll join Gov. Pat McCrory in outlining the administration’s spending plan for the next two years.

It’s a moment where government policy and plans are outlined in a way that affects every resident in the state. It is Roberts who helps the governor decide how to match his spending priorities with the money expected to come in – decisions that touch on tax rates, state employee pay raises, the makeup of government departments and more.

Roberts acknowledged that his test is to draft a budget that embodies the Republican governor’s policies and is built to survive the General Assembly’s scrutiny.

“I think anybody looking objectively would have to say that our overall impact and success will be determined with how we do with this budget,” said Roberts.

Roberts’ profile is in contrast to that of McCrory’s first state budget director, Art Pope. Pope, a retail chain owner with a long and at times polarizing presence in North Carolina politics, was a Republican legislator and prominent financier of conservative causes and candidates before he joined the McCrory administration as it began.

Pope brought an institutional knowledge – and deep connections across the state – to the administration. Critics expressed concern that Pope overshadowed his boss and influenced more than spending proposals.

Roberts’ appointment was announced in August as Pope made plans to return to the private sector. McCrory had previously appointed him to the state’s banking commission. He is paid $155,000 a year.

Plenty to learn

Roberts, 46, has been spending his time quietly building a rapport with budget writers in the legislature and learning new and often difficult fiscal terrain, he said in an interview. It fits the background of someone whose career is predominantly in private-sector banking, including at Raleigh’s Piedmont Community Bank Holdings.

“Even though I was familiar with finance and with budgeting in general coming in, there’s an awful lot of specific detail to learn about the state budget,” Roberts said.

Roberts noted that the state’s current spending plan puts $21 billion into myriad departments and programs, many with complicated funding formulas for him to absorb. “I could probably be in this job for 10 years and still be learning,” he said.

He’s catching on quickly, superiors and peers say.

“Lee has made a tremendous amount of progress over a short period of time, and the state of North Carolina is lucky to have him,” McCrory said in a statement.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Wake County and senior budget writer in the House, called Roberts a “quick study.”

“I believe he’ll be serving the governor quite well during this development of the upcoming biennial budget,” said Dollar, who in an interview talked at length about the massive plan’s layers, nooks, crannies and the debating process that can dramatically change its contents. “The variety of scenarios of any given budget item is daunting for anyone to learn.”

It’s not just about numbers, either, said Charlie Perusse, former budget director under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

“I think with any budget that you put together … it’s to protect the governor and make him or her look good, because the state budget is the largest platform to outline your vision for North Carolina,” Perusse said. “It’s not just budgetary numbers. There’s policy recommendations that really outline your vision, not just for that one year, but really for three or four years on what you see as priorities for North Carolina.”

That can also mean anxiety for anyone in the position, he added. “Constant pressures and worry, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. … You’re reviewing revenues and expenditures daily.”

Downplaying severity?

Roberts has spent a lot of time focusing on revenues, with monthly reports from the state showing an increasing gap between what was actually collected and what officials projected the revenues would be. The last report showed income lagging projections by about $270 million.

Roberts has been trying to provide what he says is “essential context.”

That $270 million, he said, is a big number by itself, but it’s also just 1.3 percent of the overall budget – and within the forecast error margin of 2.5 percent.

“I think that’s an important point for people to know,” Roberts said. “Because without that, the dollar amount seems like a large dollar amount – and it certainly is – but all numbers when you get to government budgeting are large dollar amounts, so I think the percentages and contexts are important.”

He’s drawn criticism for that. Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of left-leaning group N.C. Policy Watch, is among those who think Roberts is downplaying the severity.

“It’s fascinating to me,” Fitzsimon said, “that we’re told by a lot of folks, including (Roberts), that $270 million is not a big deal, really, and that’s sort of the message. And yet when the governor finds that a state department has misspent $500,000 or $1 million, it’s (labeled) as a sign that state government is broken and we need to fix it.”

Roberts emphasized that a substantial portion of the budget is already committed to be spent in a certain way by law – whether for Medicaid, retirement plans or health care for state employees. Other funds are essentially locked up in promises already made, such as the governor’s commitment to increase minimum teacher pay.

“When you take just the increase in Medicaid costs and the commitment to get all teachers to $35,000, that’s between 70 and 75 percent of all our new availability,” Roberts said.

No one replaces Pope

Roberts donated to McCrory’s campaign in 2012 with checks totaling $4,000, though he also gave $1,000 that year to the re-election campaign of Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat expected to challenge McCrory for governor in 2016.

Before his work in banking in Raleigh, he was a partner at Cherokee Investment Partners, another Raleigh firm. For nearly a decade prior, he was with Morgan Stanley & Co. in London and New York.

“Lee’s wealth of experience from the private sector, his sound budgetary perspective and leadership are some of the reasons why I chose him as budget director,” McCrory said Tuesday.

Roberts comes from a notable family. His parents are Cokie and Steven Roberts, both nationally known journalists and commentators. His grandparents were Hale and Lindy Boggs, Democratic members of Congress. Hale Boggs was once the House majority leader.

A father of three young children, he is married to Liza Roberts, a former Bloomberg News reporter who is editor and general manager of Walter Magazine, which is owned by The News & Observer.

“I do think I probably grew up with more discussion around the dining room table about politics and policy than the average,” said Roberts, who grew up in Washington, D.C. “But I would never claim that that is a substitute for actually being in a public service position, and the people who have dedicated their careers to it deserve a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude from the public. And I don’t claim to be one of those people. I’m honored to have the chance to serve in this role.”

Roberts said he doesn’t see himself, or anyone else, as a replacement for Pope.

“You’re not going to find anybody else,” Roberts said, “with the same depth and breadth of experience in both the public and the private sector.”

Benjamin Brown writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com

Answering the public

State Budget Director Lee Roberts said he enjoys when he has the chance to address the public’s concerns about the state budget, whether questions about a possible shortfall or state budgeting in general.

“I receive a lot of inquiry from the public, generally,” he said. “I try to meet and talk with as many of them as I can. Partly because I’m new in the job, and it’s helpful to me. I always learn something by talking with people – and also I think people have a right to be heard and appreciate being heard, even if you can’t always give everyone what they want when it comes to budgeting.”