Politics & Government

Lee Roberts leaving post as NC budget director

On March 5, 2015, newly appointed State Budget Director Lee Roberts, left, addresses members of the media, as N.C. Governor Pat McCrory listens They unveiled the governor's proposed 2015-2017 budget for the state.
On March 5, 2015, newly appointed State Budget Director Lee Roberts, left, addresses members of the media, as N.C. Governor Pat McCrory listens They unveiled the governor's proposed 2015-2017 budget for the state. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Lee Roberts is resigning as the state’s budget director, a job that required shaping the governor’s priorities for North Carolina into hard numbers and selling them to the legislature.

Gov. Pat McCrory announced Roberts’ departure at the Executive Mansion on Thursday, along with the resignation of Revenue Secretary Lyons Gray, who will join the N.C. Utilities Commission as a recess appointment.

Replacing Roberts will be Andrew Heath, who is now chairman of the state Industrial Commission. Stepping in as revenue secretary is Jeff Epstein, a top-ranking official in the revenue department.

“Change is tough,” McCrory said at the announcement. “It’s tough for me as an individual because I have a great team. Change is also good, in bringing new energy to the team. But this is also a tough day for me, personally.”

McCrory awarded both departing Cabinet members the Order of the Long Leaf Pine and praised them for their work in his administration.

Roberts, a soft-spoken, even-handed presence with a background in banking and finance, earned praise from lawmakers during his 16 months in office. State Senate Leader Phil Berger issued a statement after the announcement.

“Lee Roberts’ razor-sharp business sense and steady hand leading the State Budget Office will be missed by taxpayers across this state – especially me,” Berger said. “As State Budget Director, Lee served the people of North Carolina with integrity and distinction, and his resignation is a big loss.”

His turn in the administration was free of controversy until recently, when The News & Observer reported on contracts for prison maintenance sought by a longtime friend and political donor of the governor.

A legislative committee questioned Roberts and the state’s public safety secretary at a hearing in November, prodding them to determine whether anything improper occurred when Graeme Keith Sr. received an extension on his firm’s contract over the objections of prison officials. Roberts said he believed the extension was handled in an ethical and standard manner.

After Thursday’s announcement, Roberts said that neither the prison contract issue nor the high-pressure politics of the job prompted him to resign. Last year he briefly considered running for state treasurer, but decided against it.

He will become a managing director at a recently formed investment management firm, SharpVue Capital, an affiliate of Medical Mutual Insurance Company of North Carolina.

Roberts replaced McCrory’s first budget director, philanthropist and conservative advocate Art Pope, who attended Thursday’s announcement.

McCrory credited Roberts with helping the state achieve a $445 million surplus, launching his government efficiency program, leading the push for a $2 billion bond proposal that will be on the March ballot, and securing an agreement with Raleigh on ownership of the Dorothea Dix property.

Roberts is married to Liza Roberts, who is editor and general manager of Walter magazine, which is owned by The N&O. They have three young children.

McCrory’s appointment of Gray to the seven-member Utilities Commission comes after the General Assembly failed to take a vote to confirm him last year. McCrory nominated Gray in April to replace Commissioner Susan Rabon, whose term expired at the end of June.

State law allows a commissioner whose term has expired to remain until a successor is appointed. Rabon stayed in office but recently announced that she would retire effective Jan. 1, which opened the window for Gray.

The governor has the authority to determine that a replacement is urgently needed and appoint someone on an interim basis if the legislature is not in session, pending confirmation by the General Assembly when it convenes. Its next session begins in April.

Gray was part of the governor’s original administration. He has been a senior adviser to the president of the University of North Carolina system, was chief financial officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and served in the state House of Representatives.

The commission regulates rates and services of public utilities.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO