A gamble with state pension money?

North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell (Official picture)
July 12, 2013 3:18:44 PM PDT
The State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) is taking aim at North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell because she wants to put more of the state's retirement money in higher risk investments.

Critics say they worry she could lose a lot, leaving taxpayers on the hook. Cowell has been pushing for the change in the General Assembly. If approved, a bill before lawmakers could give her more flexibility in the way she invests the state's money.

"To gamble with the money of hardworking state workers and retirees who are counting on that check to exist, that's inexcusable," offered Ardis Watkins with SEANC.

SEANC says Cowell wants to put 40 percent of the state's $80 billion pension fund into higher risk - or alternative - investments.

"The alternatives we're currently investing in have given us some pretty horrible yields," said Watkins.

Watkins points to the last two years of Cowell's investment in hedge funds as examples. Last year, the state took a 23 percent loss. The year before, it was 19 percent. And one analysis of alternative investments in 23 states put North Carolina at the bottom of the list.

Click here for more documentation of Cowell's investments (.pdf)

"I would say where alternatives are concerned, Treasurer Cowell has performed poorly," said Watkins.

But in a letter to lawmakers, Cowell says the only way to keep making the kind of money required by state statute is to move more of it to those higher risk investments.

She writes: "Granting this additional investment flexibility is the right thing to do.  Not only for the long-term fiscal stability of our pension system and the state, but also for the 875,000 active and retired teachers, police officers, firefighters, and, state and local public employees that are part of our pension system."

So far, lawmakers have largely been supportive of a bill to give Cowell that flexibility. In contrast, the organization that representing state employees is leading the charge against the change.

"In North Carolina, there's a tradition of not gambling with our retiree's money.  We want that tradition to continue," said Watkins.

We tried to interview the treasurer Friday. We were told she's travelling. But a spokesperson told us more flexibility would actually reduce risk.

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