State looks to improve pension fund health

January 28, 2011 3:38:11 PM PST
Inside the massive white building on the corner of North Salisbury and West Lane streets in Raleigh is North Carolina's third largest bank: The North Carolina Treasury.

It manages more $70 billion on behalf of 820,000 current and former state workers, and times have been better.

"It's a tough year," explained NC Treasurer Janet Cowell.

Cowell says when the market crashed two years ago, the pension fund lost about 20 percent of its value - some $12 billion - and the state is still feeling it. That means cost of living increases may be gone.

"If we get into a more inflationary period, it's still gonna be tough given that just trying to meet the basic requirements of the pension, adding on pay increases, or cost of living adjustments has not been factored in," she said.

Could things have been managed better? Ed Macheski, an ex-Wall Street executive who retired to North Carolina, took an interest in the pension and takes issue with Cowell.

"I'm a strong believer in experience and because she doesn't have much, that concerns me," he offered.

Cowell spent only about five years as a banker and is now the pension's sole trustee. Every decision made is hers alone.

"It's a huge responsibility so I'm cognizant of that every day," she told ABC11.

And Cowell says she's surrounded herself with the best and brightest.

"I think to me being a good manager of the system means you get the best people possible to help you run it," she said.

Macheski also points out that during her campaign, Cowell took money from managers who handle state money.

"It was legal, but it doesn't pass the smell test," he told ABC11.

Since then, ethics rules have changed and Cowell says she's changed with them. But she's unapologetic about taking money when she did.

"It's like an arms race. So if you decide I'm not going to take that money but your opponent does take the money and outspends you 5-1, you're never in the office to be that honest broker of services," she said.

Now that she's in office, Cowell says her priority is making sure the pension stays funded in the face of a huge budget shortfall.

"I mean it's a cheap trick that many states have done, let's just not fund the pension, it does catch up with you," she said.

ABC11 asked Cowell how concerned people in the system should be. She said the pension looks strong, but that could change tomorrow because of the budget.

So her advice to people who want it to stay strong is call your legislators and be heard.

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