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NC lawmakers are looking out for themselves. Our series ‘Power & Secrecy’ is looking forward to you.

Spend time with “Power and secrecy,” The News & Observer’s latest investigative report on how public policy decisions affecting North Carolina residents are made with negligible input from the public.

It is not a new theme.

But it’s important that we look after the public’s interests, as lawmakers – especially those in charge – look out for themselves.

The N&O and state policy teams’ investigations have reported extensively on how public documents are less accessible to the public, including provisions hidden deep in the state budget that gave lawmakers power over whether to release their own e -mails.

The subsequent reporting from the N&O, led by Avi Bajpai, showed a bipartisan pattern of lawmakers not caring about transparency.

The N&O asked all 170 members of the North Carolina House and Senate to provide all their communications as of September 19, the day Republican leaders reached an agreement on the state budget after months of negotiations. Thirty-eight lawmakers responded — that’s about one in five, or 22 percent — which is a failing grade no matter what decade you studied math or social studies in.

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We launched Power & Secrecy as an ongoing investigation, so expect more stories throughout the year and likely beyond. (You can find Power & Secrecy stories and others by bookmarking the In the Spotlight page on newsobserver.com. In the spotlight focuses on ongoing topics of high interest driven by The News & Observer’s accountability reporting.)

N&O reporters Dan Kane and Adam Wagner contributed the first three stories of this investigation. The headlines define the issues… and should give you pause:

The stories were challenging but important. Here’s an edited Q&A with Dan and Adam about why this is important:

What reporting issues have you faced?

Than: The immediate challenge I faced is that as secrecy increases, it becomes more difficult to find the facts that show secrecy is a problem. State lawmakers have released few documents explaining why they added $100 million to what critics call a transportation slush fund, or why they gave a startup company $26 million to underwrite the development of a light-based COVID treatment . Several lawmakers, most notably House Speaker Tim Moore, declined to explain their spending decisions. …Readers should understand that one purpose of secrecy is to limit how much they know and understand about how leaders run their governments and spend their tax dollars. Therefore, they should consider secrecy important, even if the reasons behind it are not clear.

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House Speaker Tim Moore, center, confers with his chief of staff, Neal Inman, left, and Rep. Destin Hall, a Republican from Caldwell and Watauga County, Thursday, September 21, 2023, ahead of the first of several votes on the budget at the General Assembly.

House Speaker Tim Moore, center, confers with his chief of staff, Neal Inman, left, and Rep. Destin Hall, a Republican from Caldwell and Watauga County, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, ahead of the first of several budget votes at the General Assembly.

Adam: The main reporting challenge we faced for my story was pushing a highly technical, secretive environmental policy and putting it into our readers’ communities. It’s easy to think of something as just part of the budget until you’re standing over a wet, dirty pile of Styrofoam flakes next to Third Fork Creek in Durham.

Volunteer Jo Buehrer wades into the Third Fork Creek to collect trash as Haw River Assembly members and volunteers empty a trash trap on Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Durham, NC.  Styrofoam is by far the most common item found in the trash trap.Volunteer Jo Buehrer wades into the Third Fork Creek to collect trash as Haw River Assembly members and volunteers empty a trash trap on Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Durham, NC.  Styrofoam is by far the most common item found in the trash trap.

Volunteer Jo Buehrer wades into the Third Fork Creek to collect trash as Haw River Assembly members and volunteers empty a trash trap on Saturday, May 25, 2024 in Durham, NC. Styrofoam is by far the most common item found in the trash trap.

Summarize your findings from the report. Are there any surprises?

Than: I was surprised that lawmakers would say EmitBio’s money was to develop a light-based treatment for “COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory problems,” when the company’s own literature says the treatment is for mild to would be moderate cases. That’s a big discrepancy, and given that we had vaccines and Paxlovid in mid-2022, it begs the question of whether there is actually an urgent need to put public money into this.

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Adam: I think one thing that may not have been a surprise, but was a takeaway: the understanding that these changes have affected the lives of millions of North Carolinians. In some cases, this forms the basis for rolling back wetland protection; in other cases, it prevents the state from enacting regulations or participating in programs that supporters say would improve air quality and reach climate goals faster.

There is a greater good here.

North Carolina is growing and our population is expanding and changing demographically.

Basically we are open for business.

But the public’s rights to the way state legislatures act — that increasingly doesn’t seem to be your business.

Cathy Clabby, research editor of McClatchy in North Carolina, said: “Elected officials work for the people of this state, people with diverse needs related to their wealth, geography and many other things. Seizing control over who sits on college boards, selects which charter schools can emerge and how political districts are drawn reduces debate. That is a concern because informed debate is the protective immune system of democracy.”

Bill Church is editor-in-chief of The News & Observer.

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