NC lawmakers strip Insurance Commissioner of fire safety duties

Insurance Commissioner claims move was political retribution; will impact fire safety.
Insurance Commissioner claims move was political retribution; will impact fire safety.
Updated: Oct. 13, 2023 at 5:45 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) – North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey is pushing back on a move by the legislature to strip his office of fire safety duties.

Causey, a Republican, sat down with WBTV to criticize a provision in the budget—written by Republicans in the General Assembly—that strips him of his dual title as State Fire Marshal.

The new provision creates the Office of the State Fire Marshal. While the position would be appointed by Causey, it would be subject to legislative confirmation.

Causey has accused his fellow Republicans of making the move in an act of political retribution and is warning the move could lead to higher insurance rates and jeopardize building safety.

The provision in the budget creating the new office is nearly identical to language in a bill that was introduced in March, two days after Causey told the News and Observer he opposed a bill being championed by his fellow republicans in the state legislature.

“It had all the appearance of being some sort of political payback,” Causey said. “I had been outspoken against one of the bills that the legislature was promoting heavily for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.”

State Senator Jim Perry was one of the primary sponsors of the bill and told WBTV his legislation had nothing to do with Causey’s stance on the BCBS bill. my permanent folder in a subfolder named “October 13 State Fire Marshal Stories.”

Instead, he said the bill was based on research of other state fire marshal offices. Perry told WBTV he was not aware the language from his bill had been added to the budget.

“When I looked at the structure in other states, ours is an extreme outlier,” Perry said. “90-93 percent of them just don’t look anything like this at all.”

Perry’s percentages are accurate, but most state fire marshal’s offices are different from one another and exist in a wide variety of state departments like Forestry or Public Safety. Some offices are independent from other state agencies. Fire code experts tell WBTV the lack of uniformity is one of the challenges in making fire code more steadily enforced nationwide.

WBTV found several other states where the legislature votes to confirm the state fire marshal. But Causey told WBTV North Carolina’s General Assembly is frequently taking action to weaken the state fire code. The North Carolina Building Code Council is primarily responsible for adopting and amending building codes, but the state legislature has the authority to amend the code by filing bills and passing them into law.

When asked about Causey’s concerns regarding fire and building code amendments made by the legislature, Perry claimed there was no evidence to support that claim.

“You don’t have any evidence that says the North Carolina General Assembly has done something to weaken (fire code),” Perry told a WBTV reporter.

The Department of Insurance publishes a book listing the changes made to state building codes. The 2022 version lists more than 40 changes to the state building code passed by the legislature from 2021-2022.

WBTV’s research of legislative changes to the code revealed the General Assembly has carved out numerous exemptions to the state fire code. That includes allowing farm buildings to host weddings and other large events without having to follow codes required for other assembly venues, and a law exempting migrant housing from fire sprinkler requirements.

“I think it’s fair to say the General Assembly certainly changed the fire code,” Perry said when presented with the legislative changes.

WBTV’s investigation into the deadly SouthPark construction fire in May revealed the site wasn’t compliant with several state fire code requirements and OSHA regulations. Fire experts told WBTV the deaths of Demonte Sherrill and Reuben Holmes could have been prevented if the site had been following safety best practices.

Causey said the issues identified in WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure can be found across the state.

“This is a problem,” Causey said. “We need strong building inspections, we need the rules to be followed and we need people to enforce the violations when the violations occur.”

The new Office of the State Fire Marshal created by the legislature would still be staffed, and under the umbrella, of the Department of Insurance. The law says the office could exercise its duties independently of the Department of Insurance.

Causey already appoints a Chief Fire Marshal that oversees most of the fire prevention responsibilities of his office.

“I’m more of a figurehead, but I do direct and guide a lot of what they do. But the fire service is the happiest they have ever been in North Carolina,” Causey said.

Causey pointed to the number of fire departments that have improved their class rating, which can lower homeowner insurance rates.

The North Carolina Fire Marshals’ Association did not respond to WBTV’s email requesting a comment on the impending change.

Causey is calling on the legislature to reverse their action stripping him of his title or at least delay the January 2024 deadline for the change to prepare for a new system of enforcement.

“I’m all for economic development but you can’t have a fire hazard that can get somebody killed just for the sake of making a dollar,” Causey said.

Perry said it would be “foolish to assume” safety wouldn’t be a top priority for the General Assembly when approving a new state fire marshal. He said he’s also seeking a moderate approach.

“You’ve got to have good people in there to have balance and perspective and don’t get too far out of kilter either way,” Perry said.

WATCH HERE: WBTV Investigates: Fire and Failure

Insurance Commissioner claims move was political retribution; will impact fire safety.