@NCCapitol

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Lawmakers peeved over surprise makeover to House chamber

Posted November 12, 2014 5:58 p.m. EST
Updated November 12, 2014 7:57 p.m. EST

— Outgoing state House Speaker Thom Tillis authorized extensive changes to the House chamber without discussing it with fellow lawmakers.

The $125,000 makeover includes walling off six of the 13 sets of double doors to the 51-year-old chamber and replacing the iconic red velvet drapes behind the speaker's dais with wood paneling.

Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said he first noticed the plastic sheeting in the House chamber last week but didn't think much about it.

"My assumption was that they were just doing some limited maintenance work, cleaning some things up," Martin said Wednesday.

Then the drywall started going up over masonry walls and large wooden doors, and people in and around the Legislative Building started talking about the extent of the renovation. 

Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said the red drapes have hung in the chamber for decades.

"I am shocked that they're taken down. I'm really shocked," Howard said. "I certainly hope they haven't been destroyed. That's a piece of our history, a very important piece of our history, and it does disturb me."

Kory Goldsmith, interim legislative services director, said the drapes are slated to be sold soon as state surplus.

The House chamber is one of the most famous rooms in North Carolina. Thousands of students tour it each year as part of their history curriculum.

Yet, Howard, a member of House leadership, said she had no idea the changes were coming. Neither did several other House Republican and Democratic lawmakers WRAL News contacted.

"I don’t think any of the members knew," Howard said. "It should have been an issue that was brought before the [House] body." 

The money for the project was already in the state budget to pay for House operations.

Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for Tillis, said the renovation is functional, not just cosmetic. Workers are upgrading wiring and improving IT connections. They're also replacing the aging electronic voting system that has had glitches in recent years that have held up debate.  

The doors that were walled up have been kept locked since 2011, when security was tightened after gay marriage advocates stormed the House floor during a debate.  

Roberts's statement said the changes "mirror" those made in the state Senate chamber during a $2 million renovation in 2006.

However, senators voted on that renovation before work started. Also, the state budget wasn't as tight as it is now, and Tillis, who was elected last week to the U.S. Senate, won't be back in Raleigh to answer his critics on the issue.

Martin said he has asked House Republicans to stop the renovation before it goes any further.

"I am very concerned about the changes that seem to have been unilateral to a place that belongs to the people," he said. "Wouldn't this $100,000 been better used fixing a leaky pipe in a state building that's really running down as opposed to one whose walls and doors were doing their job just fine?"