N.C.-20 lobbies for beset east

Published 8:28 am Friday, April 2, 2010

Staff Writer

NEW BERN — Eastern North Carolina is fighting for its life — that was the major strain sounded repeatedly Wednesday at an N.C.-20 meeting.
N.C.-20 is a coalition of 20 counties in the east, and many of those counties were represented in a lengthy summit at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center.
Though the group was able to celebrate some accomplishments as a result of its lobbying efforts, it was clear hand-wringing is ongoing because of “onerous” coastal insurance rates that have sparked litigation by local governments.
“The rate increases are uncalled for and they’re unnecessary,” Tom Thompson, Beaufort County’s chief economic developer, said during a lunch break in Wednesday’s session.
The insurance rates were the main point targeted by most of the area media on hand, but submerged by the coverage was a largely unacknowledged menace — legislative redistricting.
Sources on site indicated that, of all the issues N.C.-20’s members are worried about, the negative effect of redistricting may be the one they are least empowered to fight.
In accordance with the state’s constitution, the N.C. General Assembly will redraw legislative districts in 2011. Redistricting is conducted after each U.S. census.
Legislative districts have to be drawn to fit the population. This means that urban counties like Wake County, which have gained population during the past 10 years, could see an increase in their number of seats in the Legislature.
Counties that have lost population over the past decade — such as Hyde and Martin counties — or counties that have grown at a rate below the state average — like Beaufort County — could lose legislative strength as bigger counties tighten their grip on the House and Senate.
Some local leaders have said they fear that much of the Coastal Plain could suffer an ebb in power in Raleigh, making it even harder to pass legislation that benefits many of the poorest and most isolated locations in the state.
“I think we’re definitely going to see a shift in representation due to the population increase in North Carolina,” state Rep. Tim Spear, D-Washington, told the Washington Daily News in early January.
Thompson, who helped organize N.C.-20, managed an assist in attracting the state’s most powerful lawmaker to Wednesday’s gathering.
State Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, was on hand to address the group and take questions from the crowd.
Yet, Thompson didn’t hold out much hope that Basnight could influence redistricting in a way that would benefit the east.
“There’s not much he can do,” Thompson said. “It’s pretty much set by state law.”
Basnight, who represents eight counties including Beaufort County, echoed that sentiment in an interview with the Daily News.
“You cannot change the law and the constitution,” he said. “So, the number of people that I represent will grow. Obviously, that will occur. So, I’ll have a larger area unless people are moving in. You and I know they are not.”
Asked if the creation of a larger Senate District 1 would dilute Beaufort County’s effectiveness in Raleigh, he replied, “I’ll have more counties. I will represent more people and more geography.”
Asked about a possible solution to the lessened political clout of Beaufort County, Basnight said, “You work every day and you make certain that the law that is written will benefit all of North Carolina, but certainly our concerns, which is many. One example is the highway-equity formula.”
Some rural counties are opposed to changing the highway-funds-distribution formula in a way that would hurt communities lacking in dense population.
Basnight referred to the new U.S. Highway 17 bypass at Washington.
“You’ve seen a large project around Washington just open,” he said. “Without that (present highway) formula, it would not have occurred. And it’s not just that project, it is many projects.”
Problems like those presented by redistricting are among the reasons behind N.C.-20’s existence, related Al Klemm, a Beaufort County commissioner who attended Wednesday’s meeting.
“It’s very important to have an organization that advocates for the needs of eastern North Carolina in relation to stormwater, in relation to Highway 17 and anything else that might affect Beaufort County,” Klemm said. “As an individual county, we don’t have much power in these issues, and I think it’s important to gather together to get strength, particularly with what’s going to happen after the 2010 census when redistricting takes place and the rural areas lose even more seats to the urban areas.”