Politics Columns & Blogs

Christensen: Session length is kudzu of the legislature

Rep. Gary Pendleton works at his seat in the near-empty House chambers at the N.C General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2015.
Rep. Gary Pendleton works at his seat in the near-empty House chambers at the N.C General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

Until the 1960s, North Carolina legislators had three months to finish the session. After that, their pay would be cut off. You will not be surprised to learn that they nearly always finished on time.

Since then, North Carolina legislative sessions have grown like kudzu. This year, the legislature roosted in Raleigh for eight and half months, not leaving town until Sept. 30.

Rep. Gary Pendleton, a Raleigh Republican, says enough is enough. He has put together a high-level bipartisan group, called the N.C. Committee to Preserve a Citizen Legislature, to support a Constitutional amendment limiting legislative sessions.

He proposes a 90-day legislative session for the major session that meets in odd numbered years, so that sessions would end by May 15. He proposes a 45-day limit on the even-year sessions, which are intended mainly to adjust the budget.

Pendleton argues that a session limit would save money, saying that if this year’s session’s ended on May 15 the state would have saved $4.2 million in costs.

But there are lot of other reasons to consider session limits as well.

Legislative sessions have gotten out of hand. In 1973, the legislature met for 93 legislative days, compared with 135 days this year. But even those numbers don’t convey how much sessions have grown, because the legislature no longer meets on Fridays.

In theory, we have a part-time citizen legislature. It offers part-time pay. The North Carolina legislature pays $13,591 per year, plus a $104 per diem for expenses and a $559 monthly allowance. It is obviously not meant to be enough for someone to live on.

But when sessions last eight and half months, it becomes very difficult for a person holding down a job to serve in Raleigh. There is value in having a cross-section of people from all walks of life helping shape the laws under which we live – from business owners to lawyers, from teachers to insurance salesmen, from physicians to home builders. Each would bring expertise and real-world experience to the debate.

The tension between serving in the legislature and earning a living is evident. On Monday, Rick Catlin, a Republican from Wilmington, announced he would not seek re-election because he couldn’t neglect his business, CATLIN Engineering and Scientists. Recently, Reps Paul Tine, an independent and insurance agent from Kitty Hawk, and Nathan Baskerville, a Democrat and lawyer from Henderson, said cited legislative time pressure in announcing they would not seek another term.

This is why the legislature is increasingly dominated by retirees.

In 1971, there were 11 lawmakers who said they were retired. This session, there were 27 lawmakers who listed themselves as retired.

The halls of Jones Street have been emptying out of lawyers, business people and farmers.

Having lawyers in the legislature is very useful because what the legislature does, after all, is make laws. There were 68 lawyers in the North Carolina legislature in 1971, but only 32 today.

In 1971 there were 66 lawmakers who listed their occupation as business/sales. This past session I counted 31 who might be put in that category.

In 1971, there were 21 lawmakers who listed their occupation as farmers. This past session I counted six who called themselves as farmers.

Having shorter sessions would allow more people with broader backgrounds to serve in the legislature.

Some critics note that session limits would mean that more legislative work would be done by committees in between sessions.

But an occasional committee meeting during the year would be less of a hardship than eight and half straight months of a long session. It could also lead to greater transparency – with a longer lead time between committee consideration and the time a bill becomes a law.

There have been similar efforts to push session limits in the past. There was an effort by Democratic state Sen. Gerry Hancock of Durham to pass a session limit law in 1983. Senators Hamilton Horton, a Republican, and Bev Perdue, a Democrat, sponsored bills in 1997 that would cut off the per diem after July 1. In 1999, Democratic Senators David Hoyle and Roy Cooper sponsored a constitutional amendment to limit sessions to 135 days. That same year, a group of Senate Republicans introduced an amendment to limit sessions to 22 calendar weeks during the regular session. None of the bills got very far.

One consequence of the lack of session limits was on display this year. Time becomes a negotiating tool during budget negotiations, as the House and the Senate tried to wait out each other. If there was a limit, lawmakers would be forced to begin real bargaining much earlier.

Another beneficiary would be local school districts and governments, who could plan to have their state funding on time.

Pendleton wants the committee to also examine the question of raising legislature pay, and having lawmakers run every four years, rather than every two years. Those are valid, but separate, questions that are likely to cause political blowback in an anti-government era. If there is one lesson from Obamacare it is this: one modest reform at a time is likely to be more widely accepted.

Session limits are not a far-fetched idea. North Carolina is the only state in the South and one of only 11 in the country without session limits. And most of those have full-time lawmakers.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack