(The Center Square) – North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey took aim at the General Assembly on Monday over a state budget provision that strips him of the title of state fire marshal.
Causey, the first Republican elected insurance commissioner in 2016, isn’t happy with Section 30.8 of the state budget adopted last week that shifts oversight of the Office of State Fire Marshal. The Commissioner of Insurance has served concurrently as the state fire marshal since the General Assembly merged the positions in the late 1940s.
“It kind of caught us all off guard,” Tim Bradley, executive director of the North Carolina State Firefighters Association, told The Center Square. “We don’t really see what advantage it could possibly serve.”
Messages left by The Center Square for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, were not returned before publication of this story. Moore, according to published reports Tuesday, says the state fire marshal should be a fire professional position rather than a political position.
Causey wrote in a Monday release: “While I deeply appreciate the 7% pay increase over two years for state employees, I am disappointed at some of the items added to the budget that negatively impact the fire service and our volunteer firefighters in North Carolina.
“I especially detest the way these items were added without input from the department, the State Firefighters Association, county fire marshals or fire chiefs. I have yet to meet the first person outside of the General Assembly that favors an independent state fire marshal.”
The budget language states “the head of the Office of the State Fire Marshal … shall be a person appointed by the Commissioner subject to confirmation by the General Assembly by joint resolution” to serve a three-year term.
It specifically states the person appointed “shall be a person other than the Commissioner.” Section 30.8 also lays out the process for an interim appointment if the General Assembly is not in session, as well as a $135,000 salary for fiscal year 2023-24 and other pay provisions. The position would be funded by eliminating one or more vacant positions in the Department of Insurance, the bill reads.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said he will let the budget become law without his signature.
Bradley predicts the change “is going to create some confusion” about relief funds, grants, inspections and other issues that are by statute administered by the Department of Insurance.
“I’m not sure how they’re going to decide who’s going to do what,” he said.
Bradley, who served as deputy chief fire marshal under Insurance Commissioner Jim Long when the Office of State Fire Marshal was formally established in 1998, suggested it may be difficult to fill a three-year position that’s subject to approval of politicians in Raleigh.
“I’m not sure who would want the job,” he said.
Jason Tyson, a spokesman for the Insurance Department, and Bradley both said it’s unclear why the change was made, or who suggested it.
“The only thing I’ve heard is it’s political,” Bradley said.
Causey played an instrumental role in a 2018 FBI investigation that resulted in a bribery conviction against billionaire Republican Party donor Greg Lindberg, who served a year in prison before winning an appeal in 2022. Lindberg and an associate are now awaiting a retrial.
Tyson confirmed Causey is planning to run for reelection in 2024.
Rep. Jon Hardister, the former majority whip from Guilford County running for labor commissioner, told The Center Square “there were members of the Senate that thought this was important.”
“It was a priority the Senate advocated for, which more less comes from Senate leadership,” he said, adding he doesn’t support the change.
“Many of the departments I spoke with support the current system,” Hardister said. “I would support repealing it.”
Bradley said members of his association “are more confused than anything.”
“Why weren’t we asked? What was it for? Those types of questions,” he said. “If someone would have presented here’s why we’re doing it, that would have made a difference.”