Local Politics

Benton to oversee N.C. stimulus effort

Posted February 17, 2009 1:19 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Beverly Perdue on Tuesday named former state Secretary of Health and Human Services Dempsey Benton to oversee North Carolina's $6 billion share of the federal stimulus package.

Benton will head the new Office of Economic Recovery & Investment, serving as a "stimulus czar" to coordinate and track how stimulus funds are spent, as well as how state-level economic recovery initiatives are handled.

Regarded as a fiscal conservative, Benton, 63, was Raleigh's city manager for 17 years before moving to state government in 2001. He served as chief deputy secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources for six years and was DHHS secretary from August 2007 until January.

"He understands the problems, if you will, the challenges of working with the state of North Carolina," Perdue said. "He gets both sides of it, and I do believe his skill set is the best I could find."

The stimulus package, which President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday, will provide money to the state for infrastructure programs like road and school construction. According to White House estimates released Tuesday, the package will create or save 105,000 jobs in North Carolina, including an estimated 26,200 in the Triangle.

The state Department of Transportation will get about $838 million of North Carolina's share. The DOT has already identified 11 projects, totaling $93 million, it plans to approve next month and get started within 60 days. None is in the Triangle.

Another $533 million will go toward school construction, but Perdue said it's unclear how the rest will be divvied up.

"A lot of the money is Medicaid, a lot of the money is education and, quite frankly, a significant amount of money goes straight to local (governments)," she said.

On Monday, she expressed disappointment with the amount of federal aid North Carolina will receive, saying she expected more for the state's Medicaid program and to help erase a $2 billion deficit in the state budget.

"I'm looking this budget year at nearly $1 billion (in the hole after cuts). Next budget year, (it could be) perhaps as big as $3 billion," she said.

The Office of Economic Recovery & Investment will track the federal money flowing into state and local governments, as well as to private businesses and nonprofits; identify the fastest ways to move those funds into the economy and remove regulatory impediments; keep the public and government officials updated on the progress of the economic recovery effort; and track the state economy to measure progress of the recovery.

Staff in Perdue's office and from various state agencies will help operate the economic recovery office, which will cease to exist once the stimulus money has been spent.

"My mission is to get those activities under way, get the organization set up, get the staffing," Benton said.