01/28/09 — Sager begins legislative career today

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Sager begins legislative career today

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 28, 2009 1:46 PM

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Local legislators, from left, Sen. Charlie Albertson and Reps. Van Braxton, Russell Tucker and Efton Sager listen to a presentation of legislative goals Monday by the Chambers of Commerce of North Carolina\'s Eastern Region. The goals focus on funding of early childhood education programs and community colleges, the military and state highways.

As one of fewer than 20 freshmen legislators, today is the day Rep. Efton Sager has been waiting for.

At noon, the 2009-10 session of the North Carolina General Assembly will convene, and Sager, a Republican from the Mar-Mac area of Wayne County, will take his seat, No. 118, at the back of the state House chambers.

"There are 120 seats and I'm close to the bottom. It's fairly comfortable (the seat), but not comfortable enough that I'll fall asleep," Sager said. "I'm anxious to get started. I really am. The big thing I'm concerned about is representing the values of the people I represent. I want to do the job justice. I think it's going to be an honor to serve the people."

"When you think about the fact that you're one of 120 people representing all of North Carolina, that's pretty awesome."

But getting to today has taken some effort.

Not only did Sager have to defeat Democrat Ronnie Griffin for the open seat, he had to do so with nearly $72,000 less in his campaign war chest.

Fortunately, he said, his background as a county commissioner and a strong grassroots effort helped him turn the tide.

Since then, though, the work hasn't slowed.

The first week of December was spent at a two-day orientation session at the legislative offices in Raleigh. Then during the first week of January, he spent another day and a half at the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In between he also attended an extra session at the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a conservative North Carolina think tank.

At those, Sager said, the ins and outs and procedures of the legislative process were explained to the new legislators.

"In orientation they went through the whole process, and they emphasized very strongly that if you need help, ask for it, because they have got enough professional staff to help you through just about any issue," he said.

He also said that he's received a great deal of help and advice from former Republican Rep. Louis Pate, who gave up the seat in an unsuccessful bid for state Senate.

"Louis was telling me some of this, and I told him, 'Louis, this is a lot to absorb.' And he said, 'Don't worry, you'll get some of it just through osmosis,'" Sager said. "I'm like the other freshmen, though, the first few legislative sessions we'll just be feeling our way."

But getting that first bill through the drafting process should also help speed up the learning curve.

"I know you learn by doing," Sager continued. "That's when I'll really learn how to do these things."

Among the issues he's looking at are increasing counties' flexibility in using E-911 funds and allowing courts to collect child support for years inmates spend in prison.

Currently, though, he's still gathering the information necessary to write the legislation. He also said he's unlikely to proceed without a solid backing by his peers.

"There's no reason in putting a bill in if there's possibility of passing that bill," he said.

But those efforts are still a few days away.

For now, it's still a matter of settling into the role.

And that has meant selecting a legislative assistant, stocking a temporary office and deciding whether to commute back and forth or find a place to sleep in Raleigh.

It's also meant realizing the time commitment his new positions demands.

"I knew it was an awesome responsibility," Sager said. "But I think the most surprising thing has been that I had no idea how time consuming it is. There are lot of events that we're expected to participate in that legislators are required to pay for out of their own accounts.

"But my wife has always been pretty well accepting of the fact that I'm committed to what I need to do as an elected official. But I'm going to make it up to her, probably with a long vacation to the mountains after session's over."

Fortunately, he continued, most of the preparations to take office have been relatively easy.

After interviewing three candidates, he selected Shirley Winstead to man his Raleigh office -- an office that will soon change from the one he's occupying now.

"Louis tells me my office will change," Sager said. "I've got too nice an office right now. I've got windows."

Even deciding that he would get a place in Raleigh -- and then finding that place -- didn't turn out to be as difficult as he'd feared, especially with the help of the $104 legislative per diem.

"I know there are going to be days I'm working late and that I'm going to need the energy to get up early and be in the office," he said. "Even for a younger person, driving back and forth can wear you out.

"I was fortunate, though. A friend of mine bought a place in Raleigh when his son was going to N.C. State. It was vacant and he was trying to rent it, but if it wasn't for the per diem, I couldn't afford it."

And while he guessed that he'd probably be in Raleigh three to four nights a week, he promised that he would still be accessible -- office phone number, 733-5755 -- and that he wouldn't forget his commitments back in Wayne County.

"Mr. Pate emphasized to me not to forget the people I'm representing, and that I need to be back here for certain things," Sager said.

That will include, he continued, regular meetings with an advisory board comprised of residents from all walks of life, all throughout the county. It also will mean leaning on campaign chairman John Bell to keep an ear to the ground.

"People can contact John if they can't get in touch with me," Sager said. "A lot of people have put a lot of trust in me, and I'm very conscientious that I don't violate that trust.

"I'm going to put all the effort I can into it. I want make sure I'm headed in the right direction."

And so while he's confident he'll be able to stay abreast of what Wayne County needs and wants, he did admit to bit of nervousness today.

"I think there's a bit of anxiety in every freshman legislator in that we don't know exactly what to expect. It's like the first day of school," he said. "They emphasize to us that 95 percent of what we do won't be partisan. But the rest, you just don't take it personal when you've got difference in opinion."

Inside the statehouse -- one in an occasional series: During this year's General Assembly session the News-Argus will be following Wayne County's three freshmen legislators as they find their offices, are officially sworn in, begin writing bills, learn the ropes and generally settle into their roles. Republican Rep. Efton Sager is a former Wayne County Commissioner. Democratic Sen. Don Davis is the former mayor of Snow Hill. And Republican Sen. David Rouzer, of Johnston County, is a former congressional assistant to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole . All three men were elected to their posts in November. The whole of Sager's district is in Wayne County, while Davis' is split between most of Wayne, Greene and Pitt counties, and Rouzer's straddles Johnston and a portion of Wayne. Today, the opening day of the 2009-10 legislative session, we take a look at Sager, the only delegate from Wayne County, and what he's been up to since the Nov. 8 election.