North Carolina’s full-time part-time legislature

By: - November 5, 2019 5:30 am

The North Carolina General Assembly adjourned its 2019 legislative session last week.

Sort of.

Lawmakers did head home, but unlike in years gone by when the end of the so-called legislative “long session” inaugurated a break that typically stretched to the following spring, the honorables have already announced that they will return next Wednesday, November 13, with a plan to take up redistricting legislation and, essentially, anything else that captures their fancy.

At the conclusion of that indeterminate gathering, they plan to return yet again in January for another session devoted to whatever matters suit the political needs of Senate and House Republican leaders.

The reason for the current break is not entirely clear. Recent past breaks of this kind have occurred to free up legislative leaders to attend national and international conferences and even to allow them to join family vacations.

One rumor has it that the current hiatus has been designed to allow lawmakers to get around a state campaign finance law that prevents them from raking in cash from registered lobbyists while the General Assembly is in session.

It could just be that after several months of cohabiting under the Legislative Building’s copper-coated roof, everyone is simply sick of each other and in need of an emotional break.

Whatever the actual reason or reasons for the current pause on Jones Street, however, one thing is demonstrably clear: the North Carolina General Assembly ceased being a part-time institution (a fiction that it has maintained for decades) a long time ago.

When lawmakers return to Raleigh next week, the House of Representatives will be meeting for the 154th legislative day of 2019. For the Senate, it will be Number 151. Both bodies have been in session for at least part of every month in 2019. This comes after a year (2018 – a supposed “short session” year) in which legislators convened in nine out of 12 months.

By way of comparison, the U.S. House has been in session 160 days this year and the Senate 155.

The striking similarities in the two legislative schedules are in no way, however, matched by the public perception and official treatment of the individuals who serve in the General Assembly and Congress.

When someone gets elected to Congress, it is understood to be a true full-time job. Senators and representatives earn a base salary of $174,000 per year plus a host of generous benefits and allowances for travel, mailings, offices and staff.

In sharp contrast, North Carolina legislators earn a base annual salary of only $13,951 plus a daily stipend of $104 while the legislature is in session, plus a mileage allowance. All told, the average lawmaker pulls in somewhere in the $30,000 to $40,000 range in a typical year. They do receive health insurance and other benefits, but staff allowances are tiny. Lawmakers in leadership positions do a little better, but the basic premise for all is the same: General Assembly service is treated as a part-time gig.

While some lawmakers, like House Speaker Tim Moore, manage to maintain lucrative law practices and others hold jobs with public and private employers that clearly cut them loads of slack in order to reap the benefits of having a state lawmaker on the payroll, for most average state legislators, holding another full-time job is not a viable option. Hence, the high number of retired lawmakers and lawmakers with income-producing spouses.

Ultimately, two of the biggest impacts of this fiction-based salary structure at the General Assembly, are: a) making it impossible for most average citizens to even contemplate running for office, and b) making it that much easier for legislative leaders and wealthy special interests to control and manipulate non-wealthy lawmakers who must cobble together an income and struggle constantly to make ends meet at home.

Remember the sad case of Rep. Michael Decker – the pathetic character who was actually living part-time in his van and later went to jail after selling his vote for $50,000 in campaign contributions?

This situation also produces extra pressure on lawmakers to look for ways to “cash in” during their time in Raleigh. Witness the recent reports surrounding Moore’s pursuit of the lucrative UNC system presidency and the story of House Rules Committee chairman David Lewis’ receipt of a highly questionable personal loan from a man subsequently indicted for attempted bribery of a state official, and the widespread rumors of Lewis’ campaign to become the next executive director of the Golden Leaf Foundation.

The bottom line: North Carolina is a large and fast-growing state. It makes a great deal of sense that it would need something more than a part-time “citizen legislature” and that it would start paying lawmakers much higher salaries to reflect this reality.

If, however, we’re going to stick to the current regimen of compensating lawmakers at rates perilously close to minimum wage, it’s long past time to impose hard time limits on the length of sessions and end the absurdity of maintaining a full-time, part-time legislature.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.