House Leaders Spend $1.2 Million to Renovate Chamber

There will be no $200 trash cans or mahogany desks, but after years of talking about it, House leaders have begun renovating their chamber.

Carpets are being ripped out and replaced. Legislators' desks, their veneer now pocked and cracked, are being refinished. Chairs are being re-upholstered.

The cost: $1.2 million.

House leaders undertook the project well aware that it might stir memories of 1999, when House and Senate leaders considered spending $5.1 million to renovate both chambers.

Legislators took more than a few public hits for that plan, which included proposals for $8,000 desks, $1,200 chairs and $200 waste baskets.

Eventually, the plan was dropped, and the money rolled into the state's $836 million Hurricane Floyd relief package.

Since then, legislative leaders have been a hesitant to fix up the place, fearing more criticism.

In tough budget times, when people are out of work, spending money to spruce up the Legislative Building could create a perception of excess that legislators want to avoid.

But the chambers of the North Carolina House and Senate are more than rooms where laws are passed.

They serve as symbols of the political power wielded by lawmakers and given by the people. The expanses of red carpet and the high daises from which the House speaker and lieutenant governor preside are meant to convey the importance of the legislative process.

Lately, the carpet has become threadbare. The desks where lawmakers sit look worn, and foam sticks out of seats whose upholstery is torn and tattered.

All are original to the building, used since the General Assembly moved from the Capitol in 1963.

House Speaker Jim Black said he approached the project with frugality in mind.

"I just hear a lot of comments about how ratty the place is, so I just said let's do as little as we can do to make the place look better," said Black, D-Mecklenburg.

The Department of Correction's work arm, Correction Enterprises, is performing the work on the chairs. Black, Co-Speaker Richard Morgan and other House leaders also decided to refinish most of the existing furniture rather than replace it.

At least half of the money is coming from a General Assembly reserve created by unspent operating appropriations from the previous year. The rest is expected to come from additional House reserves or from a state repair and renovation account.

"We are so excited about having a chamber that looks like a place that the citizens of the state can be proud of," said Sabra Faires, chief of staff for House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan. "The need to provide suitable accommodations to conduct the business of the state is what prevailed."

But Senate leader Marc Basnight wasn't pleased to learn about the plans.

Basnight consented to the House spending, but declined to renovate the Senate chamber.

In a memo to George Hall, director of legislative services, Basnight called the renovations "the wrong thing to do."

"I want to be very clear that during these very tight financial times, I believe that it is not wise to proceed with various renovation projects that have been proposed given the financial constraints facing the General Assembly," he said.

Basnight did say that he would consider Senate renovations if the state's financial conditions improve.

He and other Senate leaders took the brunt of the criticism for the renovation plans in 1999.

Faires said the Senate declined to join in the renovations because of worries they would revive the '99 complaints.

Still, she said it is time to do something to make the Legislative Building something that doesn't shock visitors.

"Anyone who has a house will maintain it rather than let it fall to pieces, and that is what we are doing," she said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Last Updated: Jan 26, 2004