01/23/11 — Democrats ready for new session -- without a majority

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Democrats ready for new session -- without a majority

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 23, 2011 1:50 AM

For a decade, state Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, has been in the majority party, and for at least half of that time, he has held a leadership position. This year, however, as he enters his sixth term representing Sampson and Wayne counties, Bell is having to adjust to a new reality.

For the first time since the mid-1990s, the Republicans are in control of the state House, and in control of both chambers for the first time in more than a century.

But, Bell said, while it will take a little getting used to, he's confident that he, as Wayne County's sole Democratic representative, will still be able to play a productive role.

"I can see the other side now," he said. "I don't see a lot of major changes. In what I've read they have an agenda set for the first 100 days. We did that, too -- set some goals. I just hope they don't try to undo too many things that we did that I think were good. But I have confidence in them. I don't question any of their motives."

Among the Republican House member's first 100 day goals are to pass legislation exempting North Carolina from the recent federal health care bill, legislation to protect right to work laws, regulatory reform, legislation to funnel more money to classrooms and not to the bureaucracy, legislation to eliminate the cap on charter schools, legislation to require a valid photo ID to vote, a constitutional amendment to restrict eminent domain, and ending so-called pay-to-play politics.

For his part, Bell said he wants to take a look at improving the state's road and rail systems, particularly in Wayne County, as well as other issues that may important to local officials.

But, of course the biggest issue facing lawmakers is the budget.

"Right now all I know is we're facing about a $3.7 billion deficit, and it's a big question as whether they will allow the (temporary 1 percent) sales tax to continue," Bell said.

In terms of that, he said, his biggest priority will be trying to protect education funding.

"I feel like we have a good and improving school system in North Carolina," he said. "And in this day in time, we need the personnel we have there."

He also said he would like to see mental health protected as much as possible.

"I just don't know what they can cut to fill that $3.7 billion gap. We made a lot of cuts last year and those were hurtful and painful," he said. "It's going to be a terrible situation, but I want to help anyway I can.

"I think I can work well enough with both sides to have input."

However, he said, he is concerned about the redistricting process.

"I'd feel more comfortable if the Democrats were in charge," Bell said. "I feel there might be an effort to redistrict to (Republican) advantage. I'm sure that's something that's on their minds, but I would hope they would justify whatever changes they try to make."

In particular, he said, he is worried about the future of minority districts like his, and whether they will be eliminated or consolidated -- something that could lead to a court challenge if it occurs.

"I can remember when we had one or two (black legislators) and now we have in the 20s in the House and Senate, and even that's not very many when you consider we have 170 members in both. I hope that will not be undone by this government," he said.