The General Assembly has managed to make just about everybody mad since Republicans took control in 2011. A PPP poll in June showed only 18 percent of voters approve of the legislature’s performance.
What to do about it? Give those folks a raise.
North Carolina legislators technically serve in a part-time legislature but the job can consume most of the year. They receive a base annual salary of $13,900 plus $104 per day when the legislature is in session.
Lawmakers haven’t had a raise in pay since 1994. That’s an impressive drought even by North Carolina teacher standards. It has caused North Carolina’s legislative pay to slip to near the lowest in the nation. In California, where the legislature is full time, legislators make $90,526 a year. In Michigan, also full time, it’s $71,685. North Carolina is ahead of part-timers in South Carolina ($10,400) and Mississippi ($10,000).
Boosting legislative salaries isn’t about rewarding the conduct of this legislature. It’s about promoting better conduct in the future. Higher pay would attract a more diverse mix of candidates. It would make legislative races more competitive and put more people in the House and Senate who are familiar with the struggles of employees. Currently, the membership skews toward retired people, business owners and lawyers.
Certainly something needs to be done to attract more candidates. Gerrymandering scares off many potential candidates who see no way to win a district heavily weighted against their party. But some would-be House and Senate members may not run because they cannot afford to win. They have obligations that require more than $13,900 a year in income.
A look at the fall ballot shows the epidemic of political no-shows. Of the legislature’s 170 seats (50 in the Senate, 120 in the House), the Senate has 20 uncontested races, the House 59.
Former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker is leading a drive to take the gerrymandering out of redistricting. He thinks it’s the district lines, not the low pay, that discourage candidates. But then Meeker is a successful lawyer, the kind of work and income background that dominates the legislature. He may be unfamiliar with the dreams of teachers and mechanics who would run if they could survive on the pay.
A push for better legislative pay isn’t coming from anyone in the General Assembly. Proposing a pay raise, especially in an election year, is taboo. The push is coming from a former member, Ellie Kinnaird, a Chapel Hill Democrat who served 17 years in the state Senate until she resigned in 2013.
Kinnaird said the lack of a bill proposing a pay hike doesn’t reflect a lack of desire for more pay among lawmakers. “Everybody talks about it,” she said, “except the wealthy ones.”
The legislature may be out of session, but members keep working. They attend committee meetings year round, serve on commissions and provide constituent services. In large districts distant from the capital, those duties involve long hours in the car.
“It’s time for people to realize what we have, which is a full-time legislature with pay that’s ridiculous,” Kinnaird said.
She doesn’t think a better salary would motivate people to run, but the low pay discourages them.
“People run for office because they believe they can make a difference,” she said. “(Low pay) just reduces the number of people who can possibly run for office, and that’s the sad part.”
Morgan Cullen, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, recently wrote an article for the NCSL magazine on legislative salaries. He agrees with Kinnaird that low pay reduces diversity in legislative bodies.
“What we are seeing is a lot of retirees in state legislatures and a lot of wealthy people,” Cullen said. “What we’re not seeing is people in their income-earning years.”
Raising pay now would be especially dicey. Budget cuts have held down pay for state employees, and many veteran teachers were left out of the long overdue raise the legislature approved this year. This is also a legislature that sharply reduced unemployment benefits. The Republican majority has refused to extend Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of the state’s low-income workers and their tax cut giveaways to the wealthy have put a hole in the state budget.
But this legislature’s actions aren’t the issue. The issue involves the legislative institution and whether it can effectively represent the population it serves. As it is, only a small portion of the population has the flexibility and resources to serve. The result is a body that’s skewed toward middle-aged white men.
Some states have gotten around the political problem of raising legislative pay by having pay set by a commission. Others tie legislative pay to the Consumer Price Index or to raises for state employees.
This legislature could do a favor for the future by approving a new commission to set legislative pay. Ideally, the commission would make serving in a future legislature a job average citizens could afford to take.
It could have a revolutionary effect. Our representatives actually might become representative.