11/03/08 — Bell set for more work in state's legislature

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Bell set for more work in state's legislature

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 3, 2008 1:46 PM

With no opposition challenging him in his bid for a fifth term in office, state Rep. Larry Bell has little reason to worry Tuesday. But, he said, that isn't going to make him complacent when it comes to representing Sampson and a small corner of Wayne County in the state Legislature.

If anything, Bell, a Democrat, said, it makes him more eager to prove that after eight years in office, he is able to make a difference for the people who rely on him.

"This is my fifth term. When you start out in your first term, you're new and it's hard to get things done," he said.

But with experience, he explained, that changes.

In the most recently completed term, he served as chairman of the House education committee, chairman of the pensions and retirement committee, vice chairman of the agriculture committee and vice chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on education.

He also served as the senior member of the House's three-member whip team, which is responsible for keeping tabs on legislation coming to the floor, how the House Democratic Caucus is reacting to it and to make sure everybody is present for important votes.

Additionally, he is serving the education committee of the National Conference of State Legislators, which works with federal lawmakers on issues like No Child Left Behind.

"I just feel like I've gotten to a place where I can make a difference," he said.

And, as a former school superintendent, education is one of his top priorities.

Beginning, he said, with making sure teachers are paid the rest of their 2007 bonuses for meeting their testing goals.

"I'd like to see us continue to provide additional funding for schools. Last year, I noticed when it came to the budget money for teacher bonuses for making adequate year progress, we had cut that money down. I'd vote to restore that and fully fund whatever we promised to do," he said.

He also said he would like to see an increase in the number of literacy coaches and curriculum specialists in school systems, for teacher salaries to continue to be increased, for more technology in schools and homes, including widespread broadband access, and for a statewide bond referendum to be held to help with school facility construction.

Additionally, he said, the Legislature needs to continue to work on lowering the dropout rate.

"It seems to be the highest I have ever known it to be," Bell said. "We've studied it and now we need to do something about it. It costs us more if they drop out than it does to keep them in school."

And that means exploring alternatives such as night classes, online options and vocational education.

"We need to do something to make sure they get an education," he said. "I think we need to show students a better relationship between going to school and how well they'll do later."

Bell also said the state should look into possibly providing incentives for students entering those job categories where there are shortages, such as teachers and nurses.

Other issues he sees as priorities include health care, energy and annexation.

In terms of health care, he again came back to the schools, advocating for more attention to be paid to nutrition and children's physical activity levels.

He also advocated for more funding for county health departments to help those on the lower end of the income scale or without insurance get their medical care there, rather than through hospitals' emergency departments.

On energy, he said he would like to see more attention and more money put into research and development of green alternatives. Comparing it to the space race of the 1960s, he said that he believes even though the technology for a cost-effective alternative isn't available yet, with enough focus it will be -- and that such a focus would help create job opportunities and improve high school and college science departments.

And finally, as a victim of an annexation process himself, Bell said he would like to see the General Assembly take a look at that issue this year.

"I think we need to come up with some sort of plan that will allow cities to grow, but also involve those residents affected," he said.

But the first order of business, Bell said, will be to get the state budget back in shape, with it currently facing a $2 billion shortfall.

"Usually what we do is look at what we needs we have and then what we have in the plus and minus columns," he said. "We're going to have to sit down and see what we consider essential and non-essential, because I don't believe we're going to be in the mood to raise taxes unnecessarily."