There’s hope for compromise and progress as the General Assembly gets going this week, but it’s not encouraging that the Republican leadership’s first decisive step has been to throw the press into the dungeon.
In February, the press will be relegated to a space deep in the bowels of the Legislative Building accessed through the underground parking garage. That’s a good spot for Deep Throat interviews, but it makes covering the legislature harder and it will inevitably hinder the already reduced crew of reporters the public counts on as its legislative watchdogs.
The move from the windowless but well-situated press room on the ground floor to an obscure and smaller room only the Phantom of the Assembly can find is occurring at the direction of Paul Coble, the General Assembly’s legislative services officer. Coble is a former Raleigh mayor and Republican member of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, a job in which he enjoyed alternately heckling and stonewalling the press. Now he’s able to move those nosey folks to the basement under the pretense of needing the press room space for meetings. A message left with Coble’s office seeking his side of the story, alas, got no response.
Despite the treatment of the press, there is still a chance that this session could produce positive news. The GOP lost its veto-proof supermajorities in November and now faces a 2020 election without the protection of gerrymandered districts and with the drag of an unpopular president atop the ticket. Those conditions mean Republicans will need to move toward the middle and deal with a Democratic governor whose vetoes can be sustained.
So look for agreement in these areas:
• A school bond. North Carolina’s public schools have struggled as the legislature has put tax cuts ahead of more school funding. This year, Republican leaders and the governor favor putting a $1.9 billion bond on the 2020 ballot that will provide at least $1.3 billion for the repair and upkeep of schools. About $600 million would go to the state’s university and community college systems.
• Hurricane resilience. After meeting hurricane recovery needs, Gov. Roy Cooper wants to spend more to make Eastern North Carolina more resilient to hurricanes by moving homes off flood plains, improving flood control and protecting municipal waste treatment plants.
• Medicaid expansion. Senate leader Phil Berger remains opposed to Medicaid expansion, but he is open to any proposal that would prevent a big increase in the state’s future share of funding. House Speaker Tim Moore is more positive about expansion and Cooper plans to make it a top goal of this session.
Lee Lilley, Cooper’s legislative director, says the governor is approaching this session with “optimistic realism” but progress “will take some trust” between the governor and Republican leaders who have tried to strip him of powers.
At least, for a start, they’re letting Cooper remain in the Governor’s Mansion. Those in the press room, however, are off to Coble’s cavern.
To learn more about the session ahead, sign up for The N&O’s Community Voices forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30 at the NC Museum of History. Register at eventbrite.com
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org