The North Carolina General Assembly convened its 2019 long session last week, with its Constitutional responsibility and main task being to craft our state’s budget for the next two fiscal years. Other work, much of it critical to millions of North Carolinians, is also on legislators’ desks.
And, there is always some legislative mischief to look forward to. This often occurs in the dead of night and without public accountability so we find out about it after it is a done deal.
The real work includes a possible $2 billion in public school funding, favored by both Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican legislative leadership. Also up for consideration is Medicaid expansion, favored by most Democrats and a growing handful of Republicans.
At least two bills calling for gerrymandering reform are expected to be introduced with large percentages of the public favoring voters choosing their legislators instead of legislators choosing their voters.
But there is a huge fly in the ointment when it comes to finding out what the General Assembly is up to and what it means for us. With the advent of the internet, traditional news organizations, specifically newspapers, have struggled for advertising revenue,m and most have cut staffing to the bone. Gone are most investigative reporters who worked on stories for months, and gone are most capitol reporters whose job it has been to tell us what our legislators are doing — or not doing.
In other words, precious few eyes are watching the General Assembly, and even fewer are there to tell us about it. Some internet sources are reliable, but even more are simply promoting their own points of view and preaching to their own choirs. Persuasion is their goal, not objectivity.
The Journal of Communication reported recently that the slow deaths of local newspapers and the loss of traditional journalists is polarizing Americans in ways we are only beginning to understand. We know a great deal about national political figures — think Nancy and Chuck — and next to nothing about our local and state leaders.
It is imperative that we look to the remaining traditional outlets we do have and to the journalists who strive daily to inform us about our elected officials and the decisions they make.
This situation is no one’s fault. It is simply a fact in our rapidly evolving media environment. It is a fact nonetheless, and the General Assembly leadership has taken a step to make it harder on the few remaining reporters who do cover our state’s elected legislators.
So, what are the elected Republican leaders in charge of the General Assembly doing to promote the flow of information to the people of North Carolina?
Nothing. Zip. Nada.
In fact, the leadership moved the journalists from their long-time office on the ground floor of the legislative building to a smaller room on the basement level off a dark and dim lower level parking garage. The move makes it less convenient for reporters to cover the General Assembly and let us know what is happening. One news account described the new press room as being “in the bowels” of the legislative building.
And why should we care if reporters have to run up and down extra flights of stairs and work in a cramped basement room?
We should care because government is always better when it is operated transparently for all to see. Those in power do not always agree with that because transparency can be messy for them when they have to explain questionable actions. But transparency is always better for those of us in the tax-paying, nonelected public.
Name-calling of these efforts — think “fake news” and “enemy of the people” — and making life difficult for a free press are hallmarks of autocratic governments who prefer the public to know less and to participate less, not more.
Just what was important enough to dislodge the capitol press corps from its long-time Spartan space at the General Assembly? Would you believe a room full of vending machines in case someone wants a stale sandwich or a pack of Nabs?