Q&A With NC Treasurer Dale Folwell
When you have the opportunity to interview the head of a State agency who also happens to be running for Governor, you take it. We met with North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell while he was in town to speak with the Southport-Oak Island Kiwanis, and we sat down for a Q&A style interview, just like we do with so many of our local business owners.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born poor in resource and rich in opportunity. Some have said, not to my face, that I am the smartest person in the room, so I am getting ready to release my high school transcripts, my Winston-Salem State transcripts and my UNC-G transcripts so we can mathematically prove that is not accurate. What I am is somebody who God gave the vision to see what needs to be seen — as a Quaker, once I see something, I can’t unsee it — and the humility to listen for what needs to be heard, and the courage to act on what needs to be done.
And you worked as an accountant?
I was a motorcycle mechanic and a garbage collector. For the first 26 years of my life, I made my living with my hands my back and my feet. What I told some UNC-Wilmington students yesterday, I told them three things. Number one, generally speaking, their generation doesn’t do too well with conflict resolution, and a lot of times, that starts with the parents. What I’d like for them to do, from that moment forward yesterday, is that any time your parent says something to you, run it through this filter of PPP — pray, provide, or protect. Are they trying to pray for me, are they trying to provide for me, or are they trying to protect me from something? Secondly, I want you to realize that it doesn’t matter how handsome they are or pretty they are or smart they are or wealthy they are, that one day they are going to get their senior citizen discount at Harris Teeter just like I am, and they’re going to look back and realize they’re standing on the shoulders of somebody else, and their job is to figure out who those people need to be now, and gravitate toward them. And the last thing is that God possibly made every one of them better at something than anyone in the whole world, but you’re never better than anyone else and that most of the big decisions in your life are going to be made when you are not in the room, like the decision to be accepted at that campus. Whatever they submitted had to speak for itself. You need to be known as somebody that what you say speaks for itself. I didn’t know all this when I was 11 years old, but these are things that I’ve developed and that I’ve utilized that put me in a position, ultimately, when somebody convinced me that you can be successful with your hands and your back and your feet, but you have a really good mind and you should think about getting an education.
It was the toughest degree on campus. My brother was an accountant, my sister-in-law was an accountant, and I obviously have some mathematical skills. During the Arab oil embargo, I was working at Cloverdale Shell in Winston-Salem, and I was able to tell which of my middle school teachers came in and switched their license plates so they could buy gas every day; they had odd and even days. I realized I had an ability to see things and memorize things and process things, and accounting was a good place for that.
What made you want to run for State Treasurer? Was that your first foray into politics?
This is my 27th year (in politics). I was on a school board for eight years, in the North Carolina State House of Representatives for eight years, the last two years as Speaker Pro Tem. Rep. Carolyn Justice introduces me by saying I was one good haircut away from being Speaker of the House. After Carolyn introduces me that way, I explain to people that it costs a lot to look this cheap. I’m trying to take things that are invisible, and in a way that the New York Times doesn’t appreciate because they said my humor is “well hidden,” I try to put some humor into these invisible things that most people don’t know about. When I talk about paying off 60 percent of the State debt, or refinancing State debt, I put it in terms of their mortgage. It’s millions of dollars, but it’s not different than their mortgage. When I talk about the credit rating, it’s their credit score. I try to put things in basic terms. So, what I said seven years ago is that whoever the next Treasurer was going to be was going to make the generational difference in the future of our State. I didn’t have any vision about COVID, and I said that not emotionally or politically, but mathematically, because of the fact that the pension plan had not achieved its assumed rate of return for 20 years, which is no fault of any treasurer. Treasurer Boyles left it in great shape; a year in, Treasurer Moore was hit with 9/11. At the end of his term and the first year of Treasurer Cowell’s, it was the financial crises. I said that seven years ago, and it was a thousand percent accurate. I think our team has made a generational difference in the future of our State. (At this point in the conversation, Treasurer Folwell used a wrinkled, worn, much used-graph on a piece of paper to show the previous and future debt trajectories for the State). The State’s debt will fall 60 percent over eight years. When you get designated as number one in the country for business outlook and business activity, it just doesn’t jump up on the table. It’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution of several things.
How does having a lower state debt benefit the average North Carolinian?
It sends a signal that we have a disciplined General Assembly that balances budgets, builds surpluses, and establishes rainy day funds. It sends a message to the business community who is thinking about expanding or relocating to North Carolina that they’re not going to have to come here and pay taxes to bear somebody else’s debt burden. It creates a great degree of financial certainty for any business thinking about expanding or relocating to North Carolina.
What does the job of State Treasurer entail?
A 4th grader asked me the other day if I signed the $1 bill. Some people might think that’s silly, but it’s actually a good question. Where else do they see that word? We don’t sign the $1 bill, but we manage the 25th largest pool of $1 bills in the world. We manage $248 billion, which is eight times the State budget; it’s the State pension, the 401(k), and the State health plan. I’m the State banker. To quote from Harlan Boyle’s book, “Keeper of the Public Purse,” the State Treasurer of North Carolina has more constitutional and statutory authority and duties than any other elected official in the State, including the Governor, except when the Governor has command of the Militia. I sit on or chair 20 boards. On the pension I am the sole fiduciary; I take recommendations from our management team, but there is only one signature. I chair the pension board, the 401(k) board, the State health plan board, banking commission, debt affordability commission, the ABLE Board, State Board of Education and the Community College Board, and that is just nine of them.
What surprised you when you took office and got to work?
Because I was Assistant Secretary for the Department of Commerce, I was not surprised by the hard work, dedication, and ingenuity of a lot of our State employees, because the untold business story about reforming the unemployment system and paying off that massive debt is not the legislature changing the law or employers paying more taxes. The untold story is the unbelievable ideas from the people inside that building who no one had ever listened to. I had to improve the system, because we sucked at getting people the money they deserved. When you’re $2.8 billion in debt, you can’t suck at anything. Sometimes it takes my breath away, the courage and the ingenuity of the State employees who worked with me — but that did not surprise me. What has surprised me, even though I have been working on it for 10 years, is how unbelievably powerful the health cartel is, and the insurance cartel and the prescription drug cartel. They told me 13 years ago, when I tried to do a little something about health care when I was a freshman in the House of Representatives. They said you know a little about motorcycles, but do you know anything about baseball? I said no and was told then you must be unfamiliar with the term “cleats high.” I said I was. He said if you file this bill, then you’re going to be cleats high, which means you’re going to get thrown out at second base and you’re going to hurt somebody along the way. I should have remembered that, but since then, the health care, insurance and prescription drug cartels have gotten unbelievably powerful.
So that’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to face?
It comes back to me working in a motorcycle shop for 10 years where my income required me to repair things and they be right. There’s not a lot room for failure when you’re dealing with two wheels. The frustrating part about this is that we have in this county, among your readers, beginning teachers and beginning troopers who have to work one week out of every four just to pay their family premium on the State health plan. We have frozen family premiums for five years, but just because the price is frozen for a motorcycle doesn’t mean I can afford to buy it, afford to ride it or afford to maintain it. My goal six years ago was not just to freeze the premiums but also lower the family premiums so we get some young, healthy people and their kids and their spouses on this plan to help offset the people my age, and I have been unable to do that. Freezing family plans has been Herculean. I can see how this can get back into good shape, but the cartel has no interest in working with us.
So how do you fix that?
The positive things that happened in this country in the 60s were not the result of the lawmakers. It was the music and the lyrics that changed people’s minds, that got everyone singing in the same direction about certain injustices they were seeing, which then changed the minds of the lawmakers that resulted in the changes that happened. What I am seeing now is a choir of people from different political parties, of different genders, of different races, coming together and in the words of Popeye, saying that’s all they can stands and they can’t stands no more. We can no longer be in a position of not being able to see ourselves past our poverty because of things associated with healthcare.
What do you look forward to in the job?
Advocating for the invisible. There are a million people on this pension plan. One out of 10 of our citizens are connected to the pension plan. Many of them don’t know that I run it and that I am the Treasurer, and that not what is important. What is important is that I know who they are. This comes back to my Quaker roots, because I was one of these, I call them the forgotten woman and the forgotten man. I describe them as people who don’t have the money to have political influence, and that is why I am going to be the best governor money can’t buy. They make just a little too much money to get help from time to time. They spend their whole lives working one and two jobs, paying their taxes, and praying for a better outcome. Those are the people I think of when I think of how to advocate for the invisible.
You’ve announced for governor — what drove you to that decision?
The Governor is the CEO of the biggest business in the State. At the core, if you look at the North Carolina Constitution, it says the responsibilities of the governor are to originate the budget and to operationalize the budget as ratified by the General Assembly. That’s the number one job. The governor of North Carolina buys more paper towels, more light bulbs and more tires and employs more people than anyone else in North Carolina. A very influential person called me seven or eight months ago and said you are running for governor. I asked if that was a question and he said you know that wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Since then, a lot of other people have said that. The root word of governor is to govern. I think if you look at my executive experience as well as my financial experience and my track record of actually saving lives, saving minds and saving money, I am uniquely qualified. It’s not because I am the smartest person in the room, but because I have the vision to see, the ability to listen, and the courage to act.
What will your top priorities be as governor?
To be the best governor money can’t buy because I am the best treasurer money can’t buy. As a former treasurer once told me, when you manage a quarter of a trillion dollars, people will try to kiss your tail in a way that you didn’t think was humanly possible. Number two is transparency. There should be no reason why it took me six months to figure out the 10 people who voted, and I am one of the 10, to shut down the economy during COVID, because nothing about the Council of State is public. Number three is to take these skills that I already posses and all of my other public service duties, and to have clear and simple goals about how we can improve the lives of people by attacking the problem, not attacking the person. The majority of the people in this State are not affiliated with any political party and there is a reason for that. I don’t underestimate the voters. The voters have, I think, realized that the left and the right wings are connected to the same bird. I am conservative without compromise, because the root word of conservative is conserve, and until you conserve anything, you can’t be liberated, and the root word of liberated is liberal.
How can the State best support its small businesses, either by action or by removing barriers and getting out of the way?
Number one is listen. Number two is some of the things that are going on, which the voters have approved, such as elimination of corporate income tax, which is happening, and to just exercise some level of common sense regarding regulations of small business. But everything ties back into healthcare costs. That’s the biggest thing, is to try to get a handle on the high healthcare costs.
Our County is growing quickly. What can the State do, or stop doing, to allow the County to make the most of that growth?
The main thing is for the State to have a philosophy that all local governments need to have the highest level of transparency and of governance. The thing about transparency, especially as keeper of the public purse, is that we have this ‘ask me anything’ call once a month. It’s international, national and statewide press. Some days I could be asked about the dredging in Currituck or Medicaid expansion. If I’m lucky, today is April 5th, and I’ve got about 20 more of these in my life. Twenty more of these, hopefully, that I can feed myself and ride my motorcycle by myself. Why would I want to spend any of that precious time keeping something from you that you’re entitled to anyway? I’m being selfish with the remaining time I have on this earth in saying just give people what they are asking for, no matter how it looks. I guess that’s why I was the first Republican to receive the Sunshine Award. When I received that, some people in my party asked me what I had to do to get it. I said I answered my phone. They asked what if you don’t know what to say. I said you ask them what their deadline is and say that you’ll find out and that you’ll get back to them, and you do.
What would you like to say that we haven’t asked?
How are we going to bring this country, this community back together again? My answer to that is that we have to give people an option of voting for someone instead of against someone. You can’t run your personal finances differently than your campaign finances or differently than you’re going to do your job as Treasurer. The way you treat your personal money, the way you treat donors’ money, and the way you treat the public’s money should be equal. We have a lot of Pinos in elected office. It’s a new term and it stands for politician in name only. It seems like there are so many people who get drunk the night they get elected and they don’t do anything else for their whole careers. They don’t save lives, minds or money. They peak that night. I think we’ve got to get back to people who focus on saving lives, minds, and money, giving people someone to vote for instead of against, and, if you have to say no, you spell it know.