Crews started work this week on a $125,000 renovation to the N.C. House chamber – a project that prompted outcry and confusion from legislators who didn’t approve the expense.
The room that has hosted the 120-member House since 1964 is covered in plastic tarps. Workers tore down the red curtain behind the speaker’s podium and will replace it with wood paneling. They’ll wall off six sets of double doors leading into the chamber. And they’ll install a new voting board and electric outlets and data ports at each seat.
The project got a green light from the office of House Speaker Thom Tillis, who’s transitioning to his new role as U.S. senator. It never went before the legislative services commission – which has approved past renovations – and several Republicans and Democrats said Tuesday that they weren’t informed and didn’t know who proposed renovations. Funding came from a state House operational budget controlled by the speaker’s office.
“Is that the best use of taxpayer dollars?” asked Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat. He learned of the project Monday night when The N.C. Insider, a government news service owned by The News & Observer, posted construction photos. “There’s no shortage of better repairs to other buildings in state government where that money could have been better spent.”
Martin pointed to Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent proposal to fix up state office buildings that need millions of dollars of repairs. He said leaky plumbing should be a higher priority than wood paneling “that doesn’t need to be done at all.”
Republican House members were also in the dark. Reps. Linda Johnson of Kannapolis and Nelson Dollar of Cary serve on the legislative services commission and said they knew nothing of the renovation.
“I wouldn’t be able to comment without seeing the project, which I have not,” Dollar said.
Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for Tillis’ office, referred all questions about the construction to interim legislative services director Kory Goldsmith.
Goldsmith said the wood paneling behind the speaker’s podium will match the speaker’s desk. And she said the walled-off doors will match a similar arrangement in the Senate chamber across the hall.
Both chambers were built with 13 sets of doors – five on each side, two in the front, and one large bronze one leading to the lobby. The three center sets of doors in the House will be covered by drywall, with the original doors still in place and locked on the outside.
Goldsmith said she doesn’t know whether the new walls are related to security concerns. Martin said he saw no problems stemming from excessive access to the room. “The doors never bothered me,” he said.
The display boards show instant vote tallies and haven’t been replaced for 14 years, Goldsmith said. Both the House and Senate will get new ones. She said she didn’t have a cost estimate for the boards, which aren’t included in the $125,000 renovation price tag.
“There were some malfunctions last year” with the voting equipment, she said.
Upgrades always controversial
Lawmakers have been hesitant to approve upgrades on the Legislative Building since it opened in 1964. The first major renovation didn’t come until 1989, when a $5.2 million upgrade included the facility’s first new coat of paint in 25 years.
Henson Barnes, the Senate leader at the time, told reporters the project would involve “no frills,” and legislators killed plans for an escalator. Modern technology was a part of the overhaul even then, with $150,000 set aside for 30 new computer terminals for legislators to share.
A decade later, a $5.1 million proposal for new furniture and other upgrades also faced criticism. Republican Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield blasted Democrats for what he called a “lavish spending proposal” that included desks costing $8,000 each.
Both earlier renovations involved input from both parties. Martin said a similar process should have occurred this year because the work will alter the look of the House chamber.
“If you want to run some new wires, that’s fine,” he said. “If you’re going to make significant changes to it, it needs to be something that engages the members in a discussion.”
Goldsmith says the changes will be complete by the time new legislators arrive for freshman orientation in early December. Until then, visitors and legislators won’t be able to access the House chamber.