Local lawmakers ranked in survey

Published 9:08 am Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Staff Writers

Some northeastern North Carolina legislators are among the state’s most-powerful lawmakers in Raleigh, according to a comprehensive survey of effectiveness for the N.C. General Assembly released this week.
Other area lawmakers are lacking in clout, the biennial survey shows.
Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who represents Beaufort County in the state Senate, ranks first in effectiveness for the 2009 legislative session.
Basnight is No. 1 in that chamber for a record-breaking ninth-consecutive session, according to the report by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, a Raleigh think tank.
According to the report, Basnight, who appoints committee members and has great influence on the fate of legislation in that chamber, is the most-effective legislator in the Daily News’ readership area.
Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, in his fourth term in the N.C. House of Representatives, is ranked in the bottom half of that chamber in effectiveness for the 2009 session, at 66th, and he is the least-effective legislator in the Daily News’ readership area, according to the report.
Asked about the rankings, Williams said, “Don’t mean that much to me. I don’t know what to say. I guess it’s pretty good.”
He added, “I’ve been up there eight years and never lost a bill. I guess 60-something out of 120, I think it’s a pretty good rating.”
Some higher-ranked lawmakers haven’t been able to pass all of the bills they have introduced, Williams said.
The rankings always place appropriations-committee chairmen “way up there at the top,” Williams continued. “The speaker’s always No. 1, and it just tracks right on down.”
Williams was asked how seriously the rankings are taken by capital insiders.
“I don’t know how much it means,” he said. “I don’t always vote with all of those people (in Raleigh). I vote with my people back home. They’re the ones that sent me up there.”
Williams pointed to his ability to gather enough votes to override a veto of boat-towing legislation by then-Gov. Mike Easley.
“I overrode the governor’s veto,” he said. “I can’t be too bad, can I?”
Telephone calls to Basnight on Monday seeking comment about the rankings were not returned.
Speaking of Williams, “I think he’s been effective in doing some things, so I’m a little surprised at the 66th (ranking),” said Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.
“I guess a lot of it would be contingent on how they grade you,” Langley said. “Probably, if you asked local people, I’m sure their views would be different because a lot of what goes in Raleigh you never see in Washington.”
Langley indicated that ranking Basnight No. 1 is a no-brainer because he is “almost more powerful than the governor.”
The center’s rankings are “certainly noticed” in the Raleigh, according to John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“I don’t know that they determine much of what happens legislatively or politically, but the ratings do get some attention,” Hood said. “Members who have a high rating tend to point to it as evidence of their effectiveness. People who run against Republicans — Democratic challengers — use the ratings to criticize Republicans.”
Inevitably, Republicans are ranked lower than their Democratic colleagues because the GOP is out of power, Hood noted.
Overall, the rankings have a lot to do with which party holds a majority, and a lawmaker could be considered more effective in his or her district than the numbers indicate, Hood acknowledged.
Some of the survey’s results are a foregone conclusion, he suggested.
“Any ratings system that would not have Sen. Basnight at the top would be a rating system worth discarding,” Hood said.
The center’s effectiveness rankings are based on surveys completed by the legislators themselves, by registered lobbyist who are based in North Carolina and who regularly work in the General Assembly and by capital-based news reporters.
Those three groups are asked to rate each legislator’s effectiveness on the basis of participation in committee work, skill at guiding bills through committees and in floor debates and general knowledge or expertise in special fields, Ran Coble, executive director of the center, says in a news release.
The respondents are also asked to consider the respect that legislators command from their peers, his or her ethics, the political power they hold — by virtue of office, longevity or personal skills — their ability to sway the opinions of fellow legislators and their aptitude for the overall legislative process, Coble says.
Effectiveness rankings for northeastern North Carolina senators ranged from Basnight’s first place to 41st place out of 50 senators for Sen. Jean R. Preston, R-Carteret.
Sen. Clark S. Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, ranked 10th in effectiveness and Sen. Don G. Davis, D-Greene, ranked 36th.
Effectiveness rankings for northeastern North Carolina representatives ranged from second place for Rep. William C. Owens Jr., D-Pasquotank, to 66th place out of 119 House members ranked by the center for Williams. Only 119 of the 120 members of the state House were included in these rankings because then-Rep. Dan Blue resigned from the House and was appointed to the senate near the end of the legislative session.
Rankings for other northeastern representatives include eighth place for Rep. William L, Wainwright, D-Craven, 29th place for Rep. Marian N. McLawhorn, D-Pitt, 54th place for Rep. Edith D. Warren, D-Pitt, 55th place for Rep. Alice Graham Underhill, D-Craven, and 60th place for Rep. Timothy L. Spear, D-Washington.
Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, ranks first in the House for the second consecutive session. Hackney has been ranked in the top 20 in effectiveness since 1983, regardless of whether he was in the majority or minority party.