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A dictatorship--then and now

When I started covering the state legislature for The Independent in 1986, I was a 25-year-old novice who thought he understood the rough-and-tumble political world from three years in Louisiana, where political corruption ranks alongside zydeco dancing and cockfighting as a form of entertainment. North Carolina, by contrast, was supposed to be the "good government state," where farsighted leaders had championed such innovations as free kindergarten and a world-class public university system. I imagined covering the General Assembly would be a relatively dull affair--until I set foot in the Legislative Building and found a system more medieval than anything I had encountered in the Pelican State.

Back in the '80s, North Carolina's two most powerful elected officials were House Speaker Liston Ramsey and his chief lieutenant, Rep. Billy Watkins, old-line rural politicians who talked in mumbles and ruled the chamber like despots. Fellow Democrats were expected to vote the party line without question, while Republicans sat ignored in the back rows. Along with six other white Democratic men, Ramsey and Watkins met in secret to write the state budget, then shoved it through the full House within hours of its release. The budget would be chock full of "special provisions," laws that were quietly inserted to avoid committee hearing and newspaper reports, and would contain millions in "pork barrel"--funding for arts centers, domestic violence programs and fire departments--but only in the districts of the compliant. That summer, we put an illustration of Liston Ramsey dressed as Napoleon on our cover, with the headline "The Democratic Dictatorship." Full of outrage, I wrote, "Democracy is ailing in North Carolina."

What struck me was how few of my media colleagues noticed anything wrong with the system. It seemed as if they were so (ahem) embedded that they took these lapses in democracy for granted. I saw these journalists all the time at parties sponsored by various corporate lobbyists, filling their faces with smoked salmon cheesecake, backfin crab dip, beer and bourbon courtesy of firms like Glaxo, R.J. Reynolds and Chem-Nuclear Systems. (I wrote about these events; they didn't.) In the press room, one male reporter talked about dirty-dancing with a female legislator, while another bragged of sailing with the governor. If they had qualms about these relationships, or about the failure of good government in North Carolina, they never showed it.

Yet, each year, I found new outrages to cover. In 1996, I discovered that much of the state's environmental legislation was written not by legislators or their staff, but by lobbyists for polluting companies. In Room 612 of the Legislative Office Building, business representatives huddled with General Assembly lawyers to fine-tune a bill written by an organization representing Dow Chemical USA, General Electric, and Exxon Chemical Co. The bill would have allowed companies to turn themselves in for breaking the law--and then become immune to prosecution. When the House debated the measure, Rep. John Nichols read from a script written by chemical industry lobbyist Natalie Haskins. "What's the big deal?" she told me. "The public doesn't care."

After a decade, I found myself growing inured to the legislature's ways, and realized it was time to leave. I could no longer report with a novice's outrage. Checking back with old sources now, I learn that little has changed. Liston Ramsey and Billy Watkins now bang their gavels in the great gilded chamber in the sky, and their successors have become a little more subtle in their shenanigans. (North Carolina is now a true two-party state, which means a House Speaker can't simply banish a dissident party member, for fear of losing that member's support.) But the legislature is hardly more democratic now than it was when I first came to The Independent 17 years ago. Lobbyists still write legislation, including a pending bill requiring local governments to pay billboard owners if they want to restrict outdoor advertising. And the budget remains a secret document for most of the session, crafted by a handful of leaders with little input from their fellow lawmakers or the general public.

"It's gotten worse," one veteran of many a legislative skirmish told me the other day. During the 2002 session, I was told, the House Appropriations Committee co-chairs were rarely seen wandering the halls of the state Legislative Building. "You wouldn't see them, because the entire day they'd be squirreled behind closed doors writing the budget. I have seen entire programs rewritten behind closed doors, without consulting the people who run those programs, and then rolled out and voted on that day.

"In the budget committees, at least there used to be an ability of committee members to have a say in what got funded and what didn't," the veteran continued. "That's not the case anymore. It's a lousy system for open government."

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist who lives in Durham. He was a staff writer for The Independent from 1986 to 1999. His current work can be read at geocities.com/byeoman.

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