Politics & Government

Security checks. Moving the media. Why 3 men make all decisions on the lawmakers’ building.

When North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore closed out the most recent meeting of the Legislative Services Commission, he said it “would possibly meet again after the short session.”

That was in 2014. Now, more than four years later, it still hasn’t met.

The LSC is a little-known joint commission that since 1999 has been dormant, save for the May 2014 meeting. The commission is charged with overseeing various decisions about the operations of the General Assembly, including setting staff salaries, acquiring and disposing of furniture, equipment or supplies, and contracting services for the building.

The commission is an administrative body and does not set state laws. But for those who frequent the building, the commission establishes the rules and procedures they have to follow.

There is, however, a loophole that allows the co-chairs of the 10-member board to approve of any action the commission would take. The co-chairs are Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, both Republicans.

Decisions previously made by the LSC have now been delegated to three men — Berger, Moore and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, a former Raleigh mayor and Wake County commissioner.

Berger, in an interview with the NC Insider, said discussions that would have previously taken place in a commission meeting have been happening informally.

So far in the 2019 biennium, no lawmakers have been appointed to the board, and it’s unclear if any members will be appointed.

Last biennium, however, Sens. Harry Brown, R-Onslow; Ben Clark, D-Hoke; Brent Jackson, R-Sampson; and Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, served on the board along with Reps. Darren Jackson, D-Wake; Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus; David Lewis, R-Harnett; and then-Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.

Gerry Cohen, the unofficial legislative historian and former Bill Drafting Division director, said the decision to move away from full committee meetings happened under former Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare. That’s when the co-chairs began signing off on decisions.

That shift eventually led to a 2011 law shrinking the membership of the LSC and giving the president pro tempore and the speaker the authority to make decisions on behalf of the LSC.

Jonathan Jones, an attorney in Durham and former director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, says the loophole essentially circumvents the need for the commission.

“If the legislature thinks the committee is absolute, why do we still have it?” Jones said.

Except for the hiring of Coble in 2015, Berger couldn’t recall a time when he and Moore needed to sign off on a decision, nor does Berger think it would be necessary.

Berger said Coble has come to him and told him about potential changes happening in the building and has asked for feedback. Berger said Coble often seeks feedback not only from legislative leadership, but from other people in the building.

“That’s what I’ve experienced and what I think is appropriate, that he makes the decision, but I think he wants to make sure that when he makes those decisions that folks know that he’s done it. ... I don’t think it’s appropriate for the Speaker and me and, what, eight other members to decide what color the couch ought to be,” Berger said.

Moore declined an interview request from the Insider.

Coble replaced George Hall, who had served as the LSO since the 1970s. According to state statutes, the LSO serves “at the pleasure of the Legislative Services Commission, and his compensation shall be fixed by the Legislative Services Commission.”

When he was hired in 2015, Coble’s salary was set at $185,000. His salary has increased to $192,000 after the General Assembly approved cost-of-living adjustments in recent budgets for all employees.

When Hall retired he was making $207,036 a year. While not an elected official, the legislative services officer is the most powerful administrator in the building, charged with running the day-to-day operations of the General Assembly. The last time the LSC met — May 2014 — it met to rewrite the building rules after the start of the Moral Monday protests in 2013.

At that time, some of the judges hearing the cases of Moral Monday protesters who were arrested at the General Assembly ruled the old rules were unconstitutionally vague. The building rules had not had a major revision since 1987.

The 2014 meeting has been the only one held since the turn of the century. From 1993 to 1999, the commission met 16 times. Since the Legislative Building on Jones Street opened in the 1960s, the LSC has acted as its governing body, making hiring decisions and debating which type of coffee should be served in committee rooms.

Cohen had to go before the commission when he was first hired in October 1977 to be a legal analyst. During that time most prospective employees still reported to the Legislative Services Commission before being hired.

“I think ultimately, (Coble) needs to make the decision, I think it’s appropriate for him to give a heads-up to the leadership as to major decisions,” Berger said.

Berger said communication with Coble about building changes is informal. Because of the informal nature of those conversations, no public records exist regarding decisions Moore and Berger have been asked about.

A public records request for memos sent by Coble to Berger concerning decisions related to his role on the LSC did not turn up any records. A separate public records request for emails sent between Coble, Berger and Moore related to the LSC also turned up no results.

“If this commission is not meeting, and there is no record of decisions being made, then there is a serious problem,” said Jones, the Durham attorney specializing in public records.

Jones said recent changes to public access in the building — including new security checkpoints — should have been run through the commission to give Democrats and the public the opportunity to provide input.

“All of those things are things that ought to be input from both sides, and there ought to be a chance for the public to be (heard from), and not just to be decided by a couple of members on their own,” he said.

Since Coble took the job, he’s overseen the purchase of new furniture throughout both the Legislative Building and the Legislative Office Building, new security checkpoints, a roof replacement, the renovation of the state seal in front of the building, changes to “tabling rules” in the courtyards, moving the press room to the basement, and most recently the addition of a new vending area.

One of the last times the LSC met regularly was when Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, was speaker of the House in the early 1990s. During that time, decisions were being made about the legislature’s cafeteria and members contemplated the use of new technology, including using the internet.

Blue said he was surprised to see the commission fade away since the 1990s.

“I thought it was a very useful group,” he said. “It enabled you to have meaningful discussions and debates as to the direction of the legislative body from the standpoint of support — staff, facilities, things of that nature.”

He said discussions about staff compensation were easier to have when there was equal representation from not only Republicans and Democrats, but also House members and senators.

In 1994, the LSC approved a motion to have the National Conference of State Legislatures conduct a “classification, compensation, and organizational structure study.”

Blue said the committee led to more thorough debates, instead of having it run through General Assembly leadership.

While current staff members have said the smaller decisions the committee was once tasked with — like deciding if coffee should be provided in committee rooms — can be delegated to Coble and his staff, concerns have been raised about the lack of communication about bigger projects.

During a recent interview with the Insider, Coble said calling a meeting of the LSC to make decisions can be a “very cumbersome exercise.”

“If I had to do that every time we moved an office or a piece of furniture, we wouldn’t get anything done,” Coble said. “The corner offices recognized that pretty quickly.”

Blue said even though the Legislative Services Office is able to take care of the day-to-day functions of the General Assembly, there needs to be some “broad overview to create accountability.”

“I think there is some real value in having accountability to a broad, legislative body,” Blue said. “Now (Coble) can make the individual decisions, but somebody needs to have final authority from a policy standpoint over the office or he’ll just be running it like it’s his own little fiefdom.”