N.C. controller nominee's qualifications examined

The job sometimes known as North Carolina's top accountant could soon be held by a lawyer.

David McCoy is in line to be the next N.C. controller, one of the top financial jobs in state government. McCoy has been the state's chief budget officer since 2001, and in April his boss, Gov. Mike Easley, nominated him to the controller's post.

A lawyer who also holds master's degrees in education and in public health, McCoy has drawn praise for his breadth of experience and 25-year tenure in state government. He served as transportation secretary under Easley's predecessor, Gov. Jim Hunt.

His qualifications, though, are different from others who have served as controller. The General Assembly, where McCoy's nomination is awaiting confirmation, is considering how much that should matter.

Rep. Russell Tucker, a Duplin County Democrat and one of the few legislators with an accounting degree, said he considers accounting or business experience an important qualification for the controller.

“I'm withholding judgment,” Tucker said of McCoy's nomination.

McCoy, 55, points to his experience leading the budget and transportation offices.

“I'm not an accountant. I don't pretend to be an accountant,” McCoy said in an interview. “But I do claim to be a good manager.”

The office has about 200 employees, including about 20 accountants.

Key position

The controller is considered among the most vital jobs in Raleigh – responsible for watching the state's books, handling payroll for 90,000 state employees, managing the flow of cash and representing the state's fiscal health to Wall Street bond raters.

It is frequently described as the administrative “back office” of the $43 billion state government. And its salary of $149,216 – or $13,362 more than the governor makes – reflects its importance.

A seven-year term gives the job greater independence than most state officials have.

There have been four state controllers since legislators created the job in 1986. Two have been accountants. A third had been vice chancellor for finance at UNC Chapel Hill. The fourth, current controller Robert Powell, worked 25 years in the state budget office and also audited corporate taxes for the state.

The Senate voted 44-0 to confirm McCoy last week. Sen. Katie Dorsett, a Greensboro Democrat who was once McCoy's boss in the N.C. Department of Administration, called him “very competent, very capable.”

House approval is also required.

House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, helped launch the controller's office as a legislator in the 1980s. He described accounting experience as important but said he sees no reason McCoy would not be confirmed.

State law says little about the job's qualifications. A lawyer holds the equivalent job in at least three states, according to a national association. A certified public accountant holds it in each of the four states that border North Carolina.

“I think the best training for being state controller is being state budget director,” said Ran Coble of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. Both jobs, he said, are critical to the finances of state government.

Easley aide

McCoy, like all Easley aides, will be out of a job in January unless the next governor keeps him on. Outgoing governors often try to find landing spots for their staff, and Easley drew criticism in November when he was seen as exerting pressure to do just that.

Easley, a Democrat, urged community college leaders to consider his budget adviser, Dan Gerlach, as the system's next president. The system's board declined to grant Gerlach an interview, even after Easley replaced two board members before a key meeting.

McCoy said he wants to continue the public service he began as a teacher in the 1970s.

“In a democracy, when you're handling other people's monies, there has to be a high degree of trust,” he said. “And that office, as much as any, gives the opportunity to promote good government.”

The controller's office is undergoing a major transition with the implementation of a multimillion-dollar computer system for accounting, budgeting and payroll. McCoy said he is not ready yet to assess the system but would do so if he were confirmed. “I wouldn't speculate as to what I might do,” he said.

Though certified accountants do the day-to-day work, financial expertise is necessary for a major part of the job: the regular meetings the controller attends with bond rating agencies such as Moody's in New York.

“When they ask you, ‘What are these contingent liabilities, and how will they affect the budget for next year?' – you better be able to explain it to them,” Powell said.

McCoy has attended those meetings in his capacity as head of the governor's budget office, and he said he would be ready for the new responsibilities.

Powell's term ends June 30, though he could stay longer if a successor is not confirmed by then.