Time for Professionals

By: - July 25, 2005 7:16 am

As the legislative session drags on toward Labor Day with no apparent end in sight, the rumblings of the need to reform the legislative process are making their annual appearance. The folks who want limits on legislative sessions in state law or written into the constitution are starting again.

The argument has an immediate appeal in times like these, a legislature deadlocked in the oppressive summer heat on issues like the cigarette tax, the lottery, how much to spend on human services. With only a few notable exceptions like the moratorium on executions, most important issues have been decided or are now part of the budget negotiations. Senate committees are no longer meeting. House committees are winding up their work.

News stories about the legislature will soon remind us that its costs $65,000 a day to run the General Assembly when lawmakers are in session, the implication of course that lawmakers are wasting our money.

Advocates, lobbyists, columnists, this writer included, all lament the lack of progress that costs the state money and encourage lawmakers to finish their work and go home. That’s partially because people involved in the legislative process are in danger of losing another summer vacation.

Sounds like a compelling case to set arbitrary limits on how long legislators can stay in Raleigh, to preserve what we are told is North Carolina’s honorable tradition of a citizen legislature.

It would be a terrible mistake. The proposal is based a fundamentally flawed assumption and would actually take the legislature in the wrong direction, toward more control of the legislative process by wealthy interests who can hire a battalion of lobbyists to influence lawmakers and legislative staff members.

This may come as a shock to some of North Carolina’s traditionalists, but we do not have a citizen legislature now, not even close. The easiest way to understand that is to take a stroll through the parking lot underneath the legislative building and compare it to the parking lot outside any mall or factory gate in the state.

There are plenty of exceptions, but for the most part state lawmakers are relatively wealthy, retired, run a business or law firm that they can leave for months at a time. Middle class workers are not well represented on the floor of the House and Senate.

Legislative pay is $13,900 a year. Lawmakers also get travel and expense money, some is taxed, some isn’t, but no one serves in the General Assembly for the wages.

Most session limits proposals would force lawmakers to adjourn in 120 says in odd-numbered years when lost sessions are held, and 60 days in even-numbered years.

Imagine getting a job and then going to your boss and letting him or her know that you will be gone at least four months this year and probably more than two next year. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that serving in North Carolina General Assembly currently is roughly 80 percent of a full-time job. That’s not just time in session. It includes interim studies, constituent service and campaigning for election.

Ten states have full time legislatures and it is time North Carolina joins the list. The General Assembly writes a $17 billion budget and considers thousands of bills, making decisions that affect the lives of everyone in the state.

A full-time legislature with reasonable pay would allow average North Carolinians to serve. Imagine lawmakers with the time to actually read legislation before they voted on it, to meet with constituents during the session, to hold public hearings as part of the debate, to have budget deliberations in the open.

Comprehensive campaign finance reform that included public financing of elections would allow average people to run. No longer would candidates be recruited based on their personal wealth or their ability to raise money from wealthy friends.

Those are the two reforms we need. They would bring more people into the process and allow the public to have more input into the state policy debate. Sounds interestingly like democracy, something that we could use more of in North Carolina.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066