In August, when state Rep. John Bell was elected majority leader by the House Republican Caucus, he said he was looking forward to traveling the state and helping maintain Republicans’ 74-seat majority. Now, with a supermajority secured for the GOP and the long legislative session underway, Bell and the rest of his caucus can get down to work.
This year, that means work on the budget. Bell, 37, who works for a credit union in Goldsboro and is one of House Speaker Tim Moore’s top lieutenants, describes the two-year budget as “the biggest issue we will handle all session.”
The Senate will kick off the budget-writing process this year. Once that’s complete, Bell said with a slight laugh, the House will “take their budget and we'll fix it and make it better.”
Before any of that can happen, the General Assembly has to wait for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to put forth his budget proposal. Before leaving office, former Gov. Pat McCrory released budget priorities that included transportation initiatives, increased teacher pay and mental health funding and replenishing the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Bell said he’s hopeful the next state budget will be prove to be legislation that “can be bipartisan across the whole entire state.”
One of the major plot points in the state budget will be education. “Education is a huge issue because it represents 57 percent of our state budget,” Bell said.
Bell said he hopes for regulatory reform this year or next year. He said a proposed reduction of regulations that didn’t pass last year “weighed on a lot of us and that’s a priority that a lot of members of the General Assembly would want to see move forward.”
Last year’s deregulation bill went through several revisions and at times included proposals such as reducing the number of counties that must conduct vehicle emissions inspections, repealing the ban on discarding televisions and computers in landfills and making large swaths of the state off-limits to skyscraping wind farms.
Bell represents District 10, which covers Craven, Greene, Lenoir and Wayne Counties – areas that were hit hard by Hurricane Matthew last October. The third-term representative said one of his personal goals for the session is to help get relief for his district and others hit by either Hurricane Matthew or the western wildfires.
While traveling the state before the Nov. 8 election, Bell not only put a lot of miles on his car but said he learned a lot of about the people his colleagues represent. “What works in Kinston may not work in downtown Charlotte. What works in Pasquotank County does not work in Raleigh,” Bell said. “Everywhere is different, that’s the great thing about our state. It’s very unique, there’s all different dynamics throughout our state.”
But one common thread the majority leader saw was concern about the rural-urban divide in the state.
The challenge for legislators, he said, is “making sure our urban areas are able to prosper and grow without leaving our rural areas so far behind.”
And when it comes to concerns about the General Assembly being too partisan, he’s quick to bring up the fact that “the overwhelming majority of legislation” passed in the General Assembly is bipartisan –- something both sides say when asked about the perceived partisan climate.
“People tend to forget the state budget was overwhelmingly bipartisan,” he said. “The General Assembly makes up really what the state looks like, so yeah, the social issues are going to be more partisan than others. I’ve met with Gov. Cooper and we've found places where we can work together on – and we'll do that because it's better for the state.” Bell said while both sides have different views and ideas, they both want the best for the state, which promotes bipartisanship. “If our common goal is to do what is best for the state then we’ll find a lot more common ground than not,” he said.