Raleigh, N.C. — Having shepherded a second state budget through the legislative process, State Budget Director Art Pope will step down in early September, Gov. Pat McCrory announced Wednesday.
Pope will be succeeded by Lee Roberts, a Raleigh banking executive who also is the son of radio and television political commentator Cokie Roberts.
A Raleigh businessman whose family runs a chain of discount stores, Pope long has been a force – both in vision and financial support – behind conservative causes in North Carolina. That made him a lightning rod for criticism of the McCrory administration and its budget priorities over the last 18 months.
Protesters with the "Moral Monday" movement targeted Pope-owned stores for picketing last December to protest his support of "extreme and regressive public policy," such as cuts to unemployment benefits and the state's decision not to expand the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor and disabled.
But Pope wasn't without critics on the right side of the political spectrum. Senators recently grilled him over the administration's projections on Medicaid spending, saying they were too conservative and could leave the state budget in a shambles if they were off the mark and led to too little being set aside to cover costs.
McCrory, however, had nothing but praise for Pope on Wednesday, even delivering a proclamation honoring his service to the state.
"He has been a hands-on budget director, and he's been an important voice and an important mentor and adviser to this governor," McCrory said. "He's been the voice of moderation and conservative common sense."
The governor said he didn't know Pope before he was elected governor, but he quickly found him to be "nothing like the caricature and portrait I read about while I was in Charlotte." Rather, he exhibited financial and legal skills to ferret out waste in state government and negotiated finer points of the budget with state lawmakers.
"He doubled-checked all of the numbers, and he found a few (mistakes)," McCrory said with a chuckle.
McCrory's voice became choked with emotion as he related the story of Pope continuing to work on the 2013 state budget while also caring for his dying mother.
"That is a true human being and public servant," he said.
Pope agreed to serve as budget director for one year – at a $1 annual salary – but McCrory persuaded him to continue working through the 2014 legislative session.
Pope deflected the praise, saying that he had a great staff and was grateful for the opportunity to serve North Carolina.
Roberts most recently served as managing director of Piedmont Community Bank Holdings and previously was chief operating officer of VantageSouth Bancshares, a bank holding company. McCrory said he would bring an outsider's perspective to the state budgeting process.
"I can't fill Art Pope's shoes, but I'm honored to follow in his footsteps," Roberts said. "I'm grateful for the chance to serve, and I'm excited to get to work."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he appreciated Pope's efforts on the last two state budgets.
"Thanks to his countless volunteer hours, our state is moving in a far more fiscally sound and sustainable direction," Berger said in a statement.