Under the Dome

North Carolina legislators want to pay themselves more

The state seal at the entrance to the Legislative Building is shown on Jan. 23, 2013.
The state seal at the entrance to the Legislative Building is shown on Jan. 23, 2013. cseward@newsobserver.com

A bipartisan group of North Carolina state legislators want to pay themselves an extra $60 a day while in session.

The changes they proposed in a bill filed Wednesday could cost the state as much as several million dollars more in some years. They wouldn’t take affect until 2019, after the next elections.

The bill originated in the House, where it was sponsored by Republican Reps. Pat Hurley of Asheboro, Nelson Dollar of Cary and Rena Turner of Iredell County, and Democratic Rep. Marvin Lucas of Spring Lake.

State lawmakers receive a $104 stipend for meals and lodging every day the legislature is in session. Wednesday’s bill would raise that to $164 daily.

The bill would also more than double the mileage reimbursements legislators can claim for driving to and from Raleigh, from 28 cents per mile to 57.5 cents per mile.

Legislators now receive daily stipends and mileage reimbursements based on 1993 rules from the federal government. Unlike for federal employees, those payments have not been updated in more than two decades.

“As you can see from the bill, it will become effective upon the convening of the 2019 session,” Hurley said. “And that is two more years from now. That will mean it has not been changed for 26 years.”

Hurley said the changes came after a legislative committee invited the National Conference of State Legislators to weigh in. The organization reported that in Colorado, more people started running for office after the state raised legislative pay to make holding office more affordable.

The North Carolina bill would update the law so that payments would be based on various 2015, 2016 or 2017 rates instead of 1993 rates.

Legislators authorized to travel out of state are also reimbursed for their hotel bills, plus $26 daily for meals. This bill would nearly double the out-of-state meal stipend, to $51 daily, and would also raise their maximum total hotel reimbursement. The exact lodging rate depends on where they travel.

How much do legislators make?

In addition to their various travel, meal and lodging stipends, most legislators are paid a $13,951 annual salary, which also has not changed in more than 20 years.

They also receive $559 per month ($6,708 annually) as an “expense allowance.” Legislators in leadership positions earn more.

As a result, in 2015 the average legislator took home about $48,000 from the state in combined salary, expense allowances, per diems and other pay. For comparison, the state’s median household income that year was $46,868.

The top members of each chamber, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate president pro tempore Phil Berger, each took home more than $83,000 from the state in 2015, the News & Observer reported.

That was more than in a typical year because session dragged on for an unusually long eight months.

At 250 days, a $104 per diem for all 170 legislators would cost the state approximately $4.4 million. A $164 per diem over the same time period would cost $7 million.

Last year a group of senators also attempted to update their mileage and meal pay, but their bill died in committee before ever making it to the floor for a vote.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, argued at the time that it’s difficult for North Carolina to attract people to the legislature. “They just can’t afford it,” he said.

But Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, said at the time that proposed raises are often unpopular with the public because people have the misperception that lawmakers “make $100,000 a year.”

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran