03/26/13 — John Bell

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John Bell

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 26, 2013 7:05 AM

RALEIGH -- As the sixth or seventh youngest state representative, and Wayne County's only freshman legislator, Republican John Bell IV acknowledged Wednesday that the pace of work has been a little surprising.

"It can be overwhelming at times," he said. "There's so much to read and review. Anyone who tells you it's not a little overwhelming is lying."

Fortunately, he said, he has a good legislative assistant -- Susan Horne, formerly of Pikeville -- and the advantage of being able to work with an experienced Wayne County delegation, especially Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, and Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne.

"They've been a big help," Bell said.

He also credited his position on the appropriations subcommittee of general government as educating exactly to the scope and scale of the state government, as well as House Speaker Thom Tillis for doing "a good job of keeping us informed and in tune with what's going on," noting in particular the briefings they receive during caucus meetings on pending legislation.

Such briefings, he said, are one reason why he doesn't quite understand the complaints by some that legislation is moving too fast, in particular Senate Bill 10, which would allow the governor to reorganize the leadership of several of the state's boards and commissions.

"It's fast, but it seems normal to me," he said. "We knew about Senate Bill 10 for a month before we voted on it.

"It's not like we're getting bills that we've never seen and having to vote in 13 seconds."

But, he added, it is up to each legislator to keep him or herself informed.

"It is my responsibility as a legislator. I have to go get the information if I want it," he said. "The information and the resources are there.

"The people elected me and expect me to be an informed and in-tune legislator. I ran a campaign on being the people's champion, and the people want their voices heard."

But legislation, whether reading it, meeting about it or voting on it, isn't his only responsibility.

He also spends a good deal of time on constituent issues, responding to numerous emails and phone calls and letters that come in each day, some from other public officials such as county commissioners and school board members -- including one recent request from the latter for a local bill to allow flexibility in the school year calendar. But, he said, most of those communications come from regular citizens concerned about an upcoming bill or from people needing help with some sort of issue.

"We try to answer every email, letter or phone call," he said. "Constituent services is the No. 1 reason I'm here. One lesson learned from (U.S. Sen.) Jesse Helms is that no matter what you're doing, you're never too busy to sit down with folks in your district."

One example, he said, is the person who called hoping he could help influence the school system's central office into giving her a call back. Another is the person who called looking for help fixing an issue with his unemployment benefits. And yet another is the woman, a military spouse, who called upset that the type of veterinary license she had was left off the list of certifications the General Assembly allowed several years ago to be transferred to North Carolina with minimal red tape. That one, Bell said, ended up being the motivation behind House Bill 194.

But sometimes the busy schedule isn't because of legislation or people's needs. Sometimes, like on one recent afternoon, it's because several groups of students are in town from Grantham School, touring the state Legislative Building, meeting their representatives and checking out the museums.

Meeting and talking to them for a few minutes is a responsibility that Bell takes seriously.

"Those are our future leaders," he said.

And while most of the fourth-graders were more interested in what the representatives could have on desks and how all the button on them worked, several clearly had given some thought to their questions -- especially one girl who's mother had been a legislative page when she was a teenager.

Bell said he was encouraged to see young people interested in the process, especially considering the role that the General Assembly's relative youth is playing this year -- both in terms of years and experience.

"It's been neat because we have a large voting block -- the Republican freshmen and the GOP second-termers. You have a huge block of people who are bringing fresh ideas to the table. You have people who are teachers or small business owners, who are in the real world and who have jobs to go back to. You have people who understand the real world," Bell said. "There's a lot of energy, a lot of excitement."