HB2 protests and counter-protests roiled the opening of the legislative session Monday, but the deeper problem isn’t the law but the General Assembly that produced it. This is a legislature that poorly reflects the demographics of North Carolina, and, thanks to partisan redistricting, most of its lawmakers sit in safe districts where they need not worry about winning over independents or voters from the opposing party.
Repealing HB2, a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, should be the first priority of this session. But the fallout created by the new law ought to also give urgency to two changes that could prevent this kind of radical legislating: Make the redistricting process nonpartisan and raise legislative pay to attract legislators who better represent the state’s demographics.
In terms of redistricting, North Carolina is a basket case. Republicans who took control of the General Assembly following the 2010 election rigorously gerrymandered the state to stay in power. Legal challenges came immediately but to little effect. The ponderous pace of the courts on redistricting complaints has allowed two elections, and likely three, to be held using maps that ultimately may be found to be illegal.
One of the most disturbing facts to come out of the HB2 uproar is that 90 percent of the lawmakers who voted for HB2 either have no opponent this fall or won their last race by more than 10 percentage points. Opponents of the law essentially have no way to unseat lawmakers who back it.
Thirteen states have a nonpartisan commission draw their district lines. In North Carolina, House Bill 92 calls for redistricting to be done by nonpartisan staff with the maps subject to a simple yes or no vote by the legislature. The bill has bipartisan support and now more than ever should be brought up for a vote.
Meanwhile, low legislative pay makes it virtually impossible for younger, middle-income and low-income people to afford serving in the legislature. North Carolina’s base legislative pay is $13,951. North Carolina’s legislative pay is the lowest of its neighbors except South Carolina ($10,400) and well below some other states. Florida pays $29,000, Arkansas, $39,400, and California, $97,000.
Data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures show how low pay has skewed the demographics of the North Carolina General Assembly. In this legislature, 14 percent of the members are retired, and 18 percent are attorneys. The average age is 58 compared to 46 for North Carolina adults. The legislative body is 79 percent white, compared to 68 percent in the state, and 78 percent male.
North Carolina needs to fix HB2. But preventing another national embarrassment will mean fixing the legislature to make it more representative of the state and more responsive to its people.