Wayne County GOP marks new era in General Assembly
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 27, 2011 1:46 PM
State Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, watches as his 4-year-old grandson Wesley Hill sits in his chair on the floor of the North Carolina Senate. Pate, who defeated incumbent Democrat Don Davis of Snow Hill in November to return to the Legislature after eight years in the House, was surrounded by five of his nine grandchildren as he took his oath of office Wednesday when the 2011-12 biennium session opened.
RALEIGH -- As the members of Wayne County's delegation to the state General Assembly helped kick off the 2011-12 biennium session, most of them shared in the air of celebration in Raleigh as Republicans took control of both chambers for the first time in more than 140 years.
That celebration, however, was tempered by the knowledge that with a $3.7 billion budget shortfall, redistricting and other challenges on their desks, their leadership would almost immediately be put to their test.
"Today is a historic day. I think it's a monumental change," said state Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne. "I think a new day has arrived, and we're looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work."
But first, there were pictures to take and historic moments to memorialize as legislators were sworn into office surrounded by family, friends and supporters.
"Today (Wednesday) is more ceremony -- a lot of tradition," Pate said. "There are a lot of families and friends and constituents here today. It's a day for them really."
And to honor that, the Wayne County delegation, comprised of Pate, Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, and Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, held a joint reception to welcome their constituents.
"We decided we'd go in together. It's a pretty wide swath of eastern North Carolina that we represent, with Wayne County the common county between us," Pate said. "And I think that it's a subtle signal that we all are going to be working together to represent all of the people in our districts."
And, as Pate, noted, that work will begin in earnest next week with committee meetings beginning, while over in the House, members are already looking at a measure to exempt North Carolina from many of the requirements of the federal health care bill, with another measure expected to soon follow that would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
"We are better prepared now than any General Assembly that anyone can remember in recent history with our permanent offices and permanent floor seats and committees assigned," LaRoque said. "We're hitting the ground running and hope to be out of here by July 4."
But with a $3.7 billion budget shortfall, statewide redistricting and a host of other issues ready to come before members, there is a lot for the new majority party to deal with.
"I've always been in the minority, so to be in the majority party, that's nice," Sager said. "But when you're in the majority, people expect you to lead, and that's what's going to happen. We've got a lot of bills stacked up that we want to get passed. We've got a plan in place and I think we have the leadership to get the job done."
And that's good, newly elected Duplin Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon said, because the spotlight is now on them.
"To those of us out in the country, it's often seemed like a classic case of a dog chasing a car, and we've often wondered what that dog would do if he ever caught it," he said. "Well, Republicans have caught the proverbial car, meaning we're in power. The focus and the spotlight is on us, and rightly so. Now it's up to us to prove we can govern, and I think we can."
However, said John Bell, the vice chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party, in Raleigh to watch the proceedings, if Republicans can't govern, then their majority might be short-lived, and deservedly so.
"I put on my Facebook, 'In Raleigh watching history,'" Bell said. "And that's the truth, but that said, if the folks come up here and it's business as usual like it was for the last 100 years, you'll see another new group in 2012. The people are tired of the wasteful spending, and people want people who will listen to what they have to say. And if they don't, Republican or Democrat, we'll send them home."
But while that knowledge of what is at stake this session, both politically and in terms of the challenges facing the state, tempered many members' excitement, Rouzer said he is confident as the Senate prepares to get to work.
"It's all about smaller, more efficient government -- getting our state in better fiscal shape," he said. "I think that if we stick to our principles and keep our campaign promises, we'll be just find and the state will be just fine."
Wayne County's lone Demo-crat, though, isn't so sure, although he said he is looking forward to getting down to business with his Republican colleagues this year.
"We get along fine and I'm looking forward to getting to work," Rep. Larry Bell said.
But after years of hearing Republicans say what they would do differently, he is anxious to see what actually happens now that burden of filling the $3.7 billion shortfall is on their shoulders.
"What I hear them saying is that they're going to do it by cutting spending and not keep the temporary sales tax. I really don't see how they can do that," he said. "I'm anxious to see how they're going to do that and still provide services."