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Colin Campbell: Restrictions, changes damage 'People's House'

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell

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BY COLIN CAMPBELL

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

North Carolina's Legislative Building is supposed to be the "People's House," but it's becoming a lot less friendly toward the people who are essential to a democratic government — advocacy groups, journalists, lobbyists and the average citizens who visit.

The building was designed in the 1960s to offer the warmest possible welcome to visitors. While legislators use drab, utilitarian stairwells to reach the House and Senate floor, visitors literally get the red carpet treatment — a lovely, wide staircase that leads directly from the entrance to the galleries where the public can watch their government in action.

The red-carpeted staircase is still there 50 years later, but last year the legislature added airport-style security screenings at the main entrances. It's a hassle for visitors but a necessary step given the potential threats facing public buildings these days.

The other recent Legislative Building changes, however, don't make much sense. Last year, legislative leaders and their appointed administrator, former Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble, banned the practice of "tabling" in the indoor courtyards of the building. Before the change, advocacy groups could reserve a table and set up an informational display.

One group once set up artwork by people who'd suffered traumatic brain injuries and talked up a bill changing insurance laws to help brain injury patients. Another group offered free blood-pressure screenings, and many groups brought doughnuts to help entice policymakers to stop by their tables.

It created a festive atmosphere where you could feel the energy of the democratic process running through the building. But Coble said lawmakers were bothered by the noise, so he shut it down. The legislature's website suggests the change is temporary "due to ongoing construction," but there's no actual construction in the courtyards.

Even well-connected lobbyists are feeling slighted these days. Coble shut down a room of public phone booths that lobbyists often used to store their belongings. While there's not much need for public phones in the cell phone age, Coble refused to explain his plans for the space.

Now Coble and legislative leaders are taking aim at the space used by the news media. Since the early 1990s, journalists who cover the legislature work in a room at the center of the first floor. The windowless bunker with cramped cubicles is hardly glamourous, but it puts reporters at the heart of the action.

When a committee meeting is scheduled with mere minutes' notice, or bill gets a surprise floor vote, we're just a few steps away and able to inform the public. Lawmakers routinely drop in to provide updates. The press room is also a stop on school tours of the building, highlighting the importance of the free press.

But legislative leaders now plan to move the press room to the farthest possible corner of the building's basement, to a space that's smaller and can accomodate fewer reporters. We've been told our current space is needed for legislators' meeting space, but there are already plenty of underused meeting rooms.

In today's era of anti-media rhetoric, it's hard not to see the move as another potshot at the press. And at a legislature where action happens with minimal public notice, it will make it harder for reporters to keep close tabs on lawmakers.

All of these changes at the Legislative Building are small, but taken together they send a message to the public: We're Important Politicians, and this is our house. You can come visit, but only if you keep quiet and stay out of our way.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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