08/27/07 — Group stumps for more business in politics

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Group stumps for more business in politics

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 27, 2007 1:45 PM

The number of businessmen and women in the ranks of the North Carolina General Assembly might be declining, but Wayne County Chamber of Commerce President Steve Hicks isn't too worried.

He is confident that Wayne County and its business interests will continue to be represented.

"I'm not too concerned," Hicks said. "I do think the business community serves itself better by having legislators with business backgrounds, but we've got good representatives."

The issue came up ealier this month when Wayne County hosted a meeting of the Chambers of Eastern North Carolina.

Among the featured speakers was Mark Flemming, executive vice president of NCFREE (North Carolina Forum for Research and Economic Education).

"Our main goal is to elect business people from both parties," he said.

As the state has changed over the years, Flemming explained, so has its political makeup.

In the legislature, he said, the business base in both chambers is under 50 percent. According to his organization's numbers, in the House, only 43 percent of the members vote for business interests 70 percent or more of the time. In the Senate, that number is 42 percent.

"We need more. We need friends," he said.

And to that end, NCFREE is asking for the help of local chambers in recruiting business owners to run for office in 2008 -- particularly in the primary races, which are often more competitive.

"We think there's going to be a lot of turnover this session, and that will create an opportunity for us to recruit people from both parties," Flemming said.

But the Wayne County Chamber, Hicks said, isn't likely to participate in any such exercise.

"He was speaking on a statewide basis. We've got good local representation. We get good support from them," he said.

And at any rate, it might take more than just increased recruitment efforts to persuade businessmen to run for office.

"It's not the most lucrative profession you can have," said Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne.

For their services, legislators receive $13,951 a year in salary, a year-round $559 a month for expenses, a per diem of $104 while in session and 29 cents per mile traveled on state business.

The other obstacle is the time committment.

Currently, legislators from both chambers are elected to two-year terms, which requires near constant campaigning if one wants to be re-elected.

Then, during those two years, the long session -- when the budget is approved -- often takes seven to eight months. The short session can take two or three. There also are committees that meet regularly throughout the year, and called special sessions are never out of the question.

For Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, shortening that time commitment has become something of a personal project -- one that he has introduced several bills to legislate.

"We have got to limit the time we spend here," he said.

"It used to be viewed as a part-time job, and now, it's really become more of a full-time job," Pate added.

Right now, though, he doesn't think the current legislature is necessarily anti-business.

"You have people from all walks of life. I think it's a good mix. But government does have a big impact on business," Pate said, ticking off issues like taxes, health care, minimum wage, transportation, economic development and education.

For Wayne County, Pate, Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, and Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, all have backgrounds in business. Kerr is a partner in a Goldsboro law firm, while Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, is a retired educator.