North Carolina Legislative Building. Photo Credit: Dave Crosby, via Flickr. Licensed CC.
The North Carolina General Assembly reconvenes on Wednesday with more representation for Charlotte than ever before. Photo Credit: Dave Crosby, via Flickr. Licensed CC.

By Jim Morrill, jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com
Originally published by The Charlotte Observer: Wednesday, Jan. 09, 2013

When North Carolina’s new General Assembly convenes Wednesday, Mecklenburg County will enjoy its greatest influence in years, if not ever.

A governor from Charlotte. A House speaker from Cornelius. A key senator from Matthews. A lieutenant governor who, as a mayor’s son, grew up in Charlotte.

All that, plus an expanded delegation that now accounts for 1 of every 10 state lawmakers.

“Having that much Charlotte input into issues is going to be good for the whole state; it’s not just good for Charlotte,” said Natalie English, a senior vice president at the Charlotte Chamber.

The legislature will convene for a largely ceremonial session to swear in new members and elect leaders. Then it will recess until later this month, when the real work begins.

The agenda includes key decisions on economic development, unemployment benefits, taxes, education, transportation and voting law. Mecklenburg County could have an influential voice on each.

Redistricting expanded the size of the county’s delegation to five senators and a dozen House members, fully a tenth of the legislature. New districts, along with redrawn old ones and retirements, means the addition of six freshmen lawmakers.

They’ll add to the legislature’s heavy turnover in the last two elections.

Republicans have advantage

Jonathan Kappler, research director for the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, said almost 60 percent of lawmakers are in their first or second term.

“For so long the membership of the General Assembly and its leadership structure was pretty stable,” he said. “But following the 2010 and 2012 elections, it’s been marked more by change.”

The session also finds Republicans in their strongest position in over a century. They outnumber Democrats 33-17 in the Senate and 77-43 in the House.

Former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed a record 19 bills, including one that would have required voter IDs. Republicans overrode many of the vetoes, but not all. Now they have veto-proof majorities in each chamber. But they probably won’t need them.

A Republican governor, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, took office last weekend. Republican Dan Forest, son of former GOP mayor and U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, was sworn in Monday as lieutenant governor.

Urban leaders from around the state expect at least a sympathetic ear from the first mayor to occupy the governor’s office in memory.

“He understands and appreciates those issues that affect urban communities,” said English.

In the House, Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius – first elected in 2006 – is expected to be re-elected to his leadership post Wednesday. Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte will be a key lieutenant as leader of the House Republican Conference.

Democrats still optimistic

In the Senate, GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews will co-chair the Finance Committee. He’ll play a pivotal role in trying to overhaul the state’s tax code, which McCrory has also made a priority. The current tax code, he said, dates from “a North Carolina economy based on 1930s manufacturing.”

Rucho said tax changes, like regulatory changes and economic development, will benefit the Charlotte area by helping all of North Carolina. “We’re concerned about the well-being of the entire state,” he said. If the state prospers, he added, “Mecklenburg County can’t help but share in the prosperity.”

Despite the partisan numbers, some Mecklenburg Democrats say they’re optimistic.

Rep. Tricia Cotham, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher and administrator, will co-chair the House Education Committee. Republicans also moved her seat from the back of the chamber to nearer the front.

“I as a Democrat from Day One worked really hard to build relationships across the aisle, and many of my friends are now the people in charge,” she said. “Relationships matter.”

Veteran Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter co-chaired the Senate Finance Committee as recently as 2010. He still expects to be involved in big decisions, just not in the same way.

“It means I don’t have to worry about all the details as much,” he said. “It means more freedom to focus on projects that have been a long-time concern.”

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