Janet Cowell | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Janet Cowell 

Candidate for State Treasurer

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Janet Cowell
Date of Birth: July 19, 1968
Campaign Web Site: www.cowellfortreasurer.com
Occupation & Employer: State Senator, North Carolina General Assembly
Years lived in North Carolina: 11

1) What do you see as the most important issues facing the Treasurer’s office? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

The most important issues facing the Treasurer’s office are:

  1. protecting and growing the State’s $78 billion pension fund. The pension fund provides the retirement for over 820,000 retired State employees, including teachers, firefighters and police officers;
  2. facilitating prudent and affordable financing for state infrastructure, including schools, transportation, water and sewer, and hospitals;
  3. investing in jobs and education in North Carolina.

If elected, my top three priorities in addressing these issues are establishing an enhanced investment advisory board made up of financial professionals to share best practices and help oversee investment decisions. Nationwide there is three trillion dollars in public pension funds and very little regulation on the oversight of these funds. While NC is in good shape in terms of our pension fund, we need to continue to professionalize the treasurer’s office by demanding greater financial qualifications and ongoing training requirements for fund managers and advisors. This effort would also include openness and transparency for the office.

Second, I would proactively reach out to minorities and historically underutilized businesses to grow jobs in the financial services industry and insure good returns on our investments. I would strengthen ties with the university system to insure that our best and brightest have the opportunity to gain financial skills and compete for business with the treasurer’s office.

Third, I would work with local government, bond attorneys and public finance professionals to help insure we have adequate infrastructure and maintain the state’s AAA bond rating.

2) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the issues you’ve identified? Please be as specific as possible in relating past accomplishments to current goals.

In order to be effective, the NC Treasurer needs to have financial skills, an understanding of state government and a track record of investing in jobs and education. I have an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and worked as a stock analyst for HSBC (bank) and Lehman Brothers (investment bank). I understand the principles of equity or stock investments – important since over 50% of the pension fund is invested in stocks. This financial background combined with my service as a City Councilor prepares me to work with stakeholders to facilitate infrastructure financing. As a State Senator, I co-chair the committee that oversees the Treasurer’s office and thus have a good understanding of office operations. I will use my relationships in the NC General Assembly and understanding of legislative process to get the job done. I have a track record of investing in education and creating jobs in North Carolina: in the private sector, I worked with SJF Ventures, a venture capital firm in Durham to invest in companies that created hundreds of jobs. As a state senator, I helped create jobs in new industries such as biotechnology as well as retain thousands of jobs in traditional firms such as Bridgestone and Firestone.

3) How do you define yourself politically, and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I define myself as a progressive who focuses on practical problem solving. As a member of the Raleigh City Council, I led the reform of residential solid waste pick-up, which resulted in an increase in recycling pick-up and a savings in operational expenses. The implementation was not without its problems, but throughout I have retained a good relationship with solid waste workers and management. In the legislature, I have also focused on practical, but progressive issues, such as information technology integration in state government – something that lays the ground work for enhanced services, cost savings and better assessment of program performance. I also passed a bill requiring new energy and water conservation efforts within state government to save taxpayer dollars (state government was well on its way towards a $400 million annual utility bill) and protect the environment. The Treasurer’s office is operational in nature, and I would use my financial skills and knowledge of state government to be effective. The position does require a strong advocate on behalf of the state’s workers and protection of their retirement funds. I have received the endorsement of the AFL-CIO in this race. While SEANC (the state employees’ professional organization) has decided not to endorse, I have received their endorsement in the past and have worked closely with the organization to advocate on behalf of workers, including securing salary increases for state employees of 5% in 2006 and 4% in 2007, salary increases for teachers of 8% in 2006 and 5% in 2007.

4) The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle and North Carolina. Please point to a specific position in your platform that would, if achieved, help further that goal.

My platform position of reaching out proactively to minorities and historically underutilized businesses to engage them in the business of the treasurer’s office and help create jobs in the financial services industry is one that would help build a more just community.

5) Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

The Treasurer’s core job is to provide a secure retirement for the 820,000 workers in the State’s retirement system. Managing financial risk may involve using hedging strategies and tools that, given the lack of understanding of these instruments, leave one open to political criticism. This is, in fact, happening now in North Carolina. For example, many used to believe that bonds were a safe investment and hedge funds were a risky investment. Today’s complex financial world makes such simplistic judgments and investment approaches non-optimal and potentially very risky. As Treasurer I will make decisions that are designed to manage financial risk on behalf of the state’s retirees, knowing that these choices may not be the most politically expedient.

6) If these issues haven’t been addressed above, would you please comment on:

  1. State investment policies: How should they be changed, if at all, from the practices under the current Treasurer?

  2. Establish an enhanced investment advisory board to help oversee investments and share best practices. Continue to work towards increased transparency, openness and accountability. More institutionalized outreach to minorities and underutilized businesses.

  3. State spending: Will you attempt, as Treasurer, to influence the pace and composition of state spending? If so, how?

  4. I will use my relationships in the General Assembly to procure the appropriate level of resources for the treasurer’s office to be effective (e.g., appropriate headcount, salaries, technology investments etc.). I will also advocate strongly for continued contributions by the legislature to fund the retirement plan. As the AAA bond rating is affected by state investment in infrastructure, I will encourage the state to invest in core infrastructure as needed to sustain economic prosperity and our quality of life. I will advocate for better utilization of existing infrastructure, more thoughtful growth strategies, and better long-term planning and coordination. As I have in the past, I will advocate for efficient government that makes optimum use of taxpayer dollars at every given opportunity.

  5. State borrowing: What policy changes will you recommend on bond issues and other forms of state and local debt?

  6. The Local Government commission has served the state well. I would advocate for greater flexibility (*without* a loosening of standards) for large cities and counties that have experienced professionals on staff and a re-allocation of resources to smaller towns and counties that do not have in-house professionals. I also believe that we need a better framework regarding when certificates of participation (COPS or bonds issued without voter approval) can be used.

7) To what extent, if any, should the Treasurer’s policies on pension fund investments be geared to strengthening the North Carolina economy and/or addressing specific North Carolina issues?

The primary duty of the Treasure is to protect and grow the $78 billion pension fund. Maximizing returns on investments consistent with principles of safety and liquidity is the first priority. I do not advocate using the pension for other goals, no matter how worthy, including social investing and economic development. As I have stated, I do believe the Treasurer can have a role in building the financial services sector by building closer relationships with the university system, encouraging money managers to open offices in state, and developing programs for emergent money managers to help them gain the experience needed to one day manage pension fund assets. I also believe that the treasurer can weigh in on issues of corporate governance when a stock held by the treasurer is under performing.

8) The current Treasurer’s practice of raising campaign contributions from the firms and executives handling state pension fund investments has been widely criticized. Will you pledge not to accept contributions from such sources? Please describe your approach to campaign fund-raising now and, if you’re elected, in the future? What steps will you take to insulate the Treasurer’s office from political conflicts of interests and the appearance of such conflicts?

North Carolina elects several statewide public officials that have an enforcement role as part of their job description. This includes the Attorney General, State Auditor, and Secretary of State amongst others. In any of these offices the public ought to be concerned about someone receiving all the vast majority of their campaign contributions from one source. I believe in these offices, absent of public financing or some other “source neutral” fund that the correct answer is for candidates to seek fundraising dollars from a diverse set of supporters. That is what I have done in this election process.

The reality of this election is that both of my opponents have been able to write themselves checks totaling nearly half a million dollars to support their campaigns. I do not have the personal financial resources to do this. Until public financing or some other “source neutral” fund is created to help finance campaigns for our public offices that have a regulatory function to them, then only wealthy individuals will be able to run for political office. In my platform I call for a voluntary public financing program for the Treasurer’s office similar to what is now in place for the Secretary of Insurance, State Auditor and Superintendent for Public Instruction (I voted for this pilot program during the 2007 general assembly).

To help insulate the Treasurer’s office from the appearance of such conflicts I have also committed to the development of an Investment Advisory Board. This board will be made up of investment professionals who understand financial markets and will have no business with the State. They will help the Treasurer make sound investment decisions and serve as a check and as an assurance to the public that I am making investment based on merit and merit only.

9) Should public employees have the right to bargain collectively in North Carolina?

I firmly believe that all employees both public and private have a right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining. I am committed to protecting this constitutional right of freedom of association. I also believe individuals have a right to not join a union. The political reality is that North Carolina has a strong heritage as a right to work state and this must be respected anytime issues like collective bargaining come up. If a collective bargaining agreement was to come into place an individual must be able to opt out of the collective agreement.

10) As member of the Council of State, you would have input on the issue of the death penalty, including the execution protocol, which was taken up by the Council last year. Do you feel qualified to vote on such issues? If so, how would you vote on the execution protocol and other death penalty matters that may come before the Council? And is the Council of State an appropriate body to deliberate these issues?

My faith teaches me that it is wrong to take the life of another person regardless of the reason. At the same time, my faith and my oath of office would compel me to both follow and uphold the law and as Treasurer, I will enforce North Carolina's death penalty statutes. I will advocate for laws to make sure that as long as North Carolina has a death penalty, that it be enforced fairly, not discriminate against anyone and have safeguards to do everything possible to prevent an innocent person from being executed.

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