Josh Bergeron: State Treasurer Folwell wants in-person meetings, changes to vaccine rollout

Published 12:15 am Sunday, March 7, 2021

From top to bottom, State Treasurer Dale Folwell finds plenty of problems with the way Gov. Roy Cooper has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lack of in-person meetings by the N.C. Council of State is particularly bothersome.

The last in-person meeting of the council was in March 2020, which means the group of state elected officials has not convened in the same room to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, Folwell said. For most North Carolinians, the Council of State has no bearing on their daily life, but its members are the state’s top elected officials. The idea behind the group is to coordinate and exchange information across governmental agencies — something that seems more important than ever for a state’s response to a global pandemic.

The council includes the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, labor commissioner, insurance commissioner, state schools superintendent and agriculture commissioner. A majority are Republicans.

“If you can put 24 people in the school bus, why the hell can’t you put 10 statewide elected officials in a room,” Folwell asked during an interview with the Post. “And the answer is because when you’ve got 10 people in a room, you can’t hit a button to end the call and adjourn the meeting.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all facets of life in North Carolina, and Folwell says members of the Council of State are well-suited to talk about them openly in person.

“I just can’t imagine that when our citizens are facing the highest levels of job, food and educational insecurity that you wouldn’t want the council of state to help you,” he said.

While the governor might reasonably point to his indoor gathering limit as preventing previous meetings, it’s curious this year’s March meeting wasn’t held in person. On Feb. 26, the indoor gathering limit increased to 25, which would comfortably allow for Council of State members, one staff member per person and others to facilitate the meeting. There are plenty of big-enough rooms in Raleigh for 25 people.

Upset about transparency, Folwell has also broadcast the monthly Council of State meetings on his office’s Facebook page. During the most recent meeting on Tuesday, Folwell gathered in a room with Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, Labor Secretary Josh Dobson and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and broadcast the meeting. Politics seem more partisan than ever in 2021, but Folwell says party affiliation is not related to his frequent criticism.

“If the governor was my same political party, I would be three times more vocal about this,” Folwell said. “Anytime I bring up transparency or competency, they say ‘you’re being political,’ but I know from personal experience this disease does not give a damn whether you’re Democrat or Republican.”

Folwell was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late March 2020 and spent several days fighting for his life in the hospital.

He readily admits that a vaccine rollout for the COVID-19 pandemic was never going to be easy. Still, Folwell says, there should be a better accounting system for vaccine doses, with every vial tracked. Doing so would provide a better measure of how many people have been vaccinated and whether a large-enough portion of educators in a school have received one or more doses of a vaccine, Folwell said. Asked about privacy concerns that might result, Folwell said data could be aggregated, with a percentage of people vaccinated at each school.

He told the Post vaccine rollout would be more effective if general practitioners and pharmacists were among those to which vaccines were allocated. Before the pandemic, people seldom, if ever, visited hospitals to receive a vaccine. Folwell said it’s good that local health departments are part of the vaccine rollout.

The bulk of the treasurer’s job is focused on the state’s pension and health care plans. Folwell also sits on the Local Government Commission, which approves local government debt.

Folwell said he’s disappointed money from the first relief bill from Congress — the CARES Act — couldn’t be used by local governments to fill budget shortfalls, especially because initial stay-at-home orders and shutdowns resulted in budget declines. Otherwise, he said the state is in good shape financially, comparing things to a college final exam.

“If you do what you’re supposed to do during the semester, the final exam is not so difficult,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, the state budget has been managed very conservatively. Surpluses have been built and our triple-A bond rating has been maintained.”

Economic shutdowns led to millions of lost jobs, some of which may never return, and the acceleration of pre-existing trends, but Folwell advocates for “opening up this economy so that people can have their jobs back.” Referencing the governor’s executive orders that forced business closures to prevent COVID-19’s spread, Folwell says future orders should all include an examination of their financial impact — a fiscal note.

The notes should be required even if the financial impact for the state is zero, he said.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.