Under the Dome

Would raising lawmakers’ pay help change who runs for office?

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

After a bill was filed last week that would raise the pay of North Carolina legislators, many people reacted skeptically. Social media blew up with reactions, and the expected jokes began.

But some people who follow government a little more closely than the average person – academics, news junkies, lobbyists and legislative staffers, for instance – said the proposal is actually a great idea.

Being a lawmaker in North Carolina is a part-time job, but it can often take up the better part of the year. Especially for people who don’t live near Raleigh, it’s a big-time commitment.

[Article: “North Carolina legislators want to pay themselves more”]

Supporters of the proposal to increase lawmakers’ daily stipends say higher pay could encourage more qualified people to run for office, or lead to more candidates from a variety of backgrounds – not just wealthy people and retirees.

And while that’s a common view, a study published a few months ago by Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill researchers shed some serious doubt on the logic behind it. Higher legislative pay does not lead to more diverse legislatures, they found, and in fact can sometimes even lead to less diversity.

“At best, paying more isn’t associated with any change in economic diversity,” wrote the researchers, Duke’s Nicholas Carnes and UNC’s Eric Hansen. “At worst, it’s associated with decreases in working-class representation.”

They studied data on the makeup and salaries of state legislatures around the country in the 1970s, 1990s and late 2000s, plus a survey of 2012 candidates. What they found was that “blue-collar candidates aren’t less likely to worry about their incomes in well-paying state legislatures. To the contrary, higher salaries don’t seem to make political office more attractive to workers; they seem to make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high salaries.”

Effects of higher pay

Others have come to different conclusions.

The National Conference of State Legislatures features prominently on its website an article that says, in part: “Maintaining adequate legislative compensation promotes diversity among elected officials so the entire population is adequately represented. If pay is a significant barrier to public service, many potential candidates will not be able to serve in the legislature.”

The bill introduced at the General Assembly last week came about after months of legislative committee hearings that studied the topic, including testimony that a recent pay hike in Colorado led to a group of candidates with more diverse backgrounds. And reporters in many states have written about individual legislators quitting politics because they simply can’t afford to serve.

But the local political scientists, while stressing that more research is needed, identified several potential reasons for their findings that higher pay doesn’t lead to more middle-class or poor people becoming politicians.

“Raising politicians’ salaries could make holding office more feasible for the less fortunate,” Carnes and Hansen wrote. “But it could also make political office more attractive to affluent professionals, increasing competition for office and ultimately discouraging lower-income citizens from running and winning”

Or, they continued, it could be that less wealthy people simply don’t care as much about politics. Or maybe the people who recruit candidates for office don’t ask working-class people to run. And no matter how high or low the pay is, they noted, someone who isn’t already wealthy could still see the decision to start a campaign as too risky, since it requires quitting or scaling back on your job, and victory isn’t guaranteed.

“Activists and political observers should stop saying that raising legislative salaries would make holding office more accessible for middle- and working-class Americans or that it would reduce class-based political inequalities,” they wrote. “It probably wouldn’t.”

Despite their skepticism on that claim, they found raising legislative pay does have some effects. They cited past studies that reached several interesting findings.

Legislators become more in-step ideologically with their constituents when they’re paid more, for instance, and less likely to miss votes. They also become more likely to run for re-election, as well as more likely to face competition.

That last part might be of particular interest in North Carolina, where nearly half the state’s legislators faced no opposition in the 2016 elections.

Debate on raise

A group of three Republicans and one Democrat introduced the pay proposal, which would double the General Assembly’s mileage reimbursements and raise legislators’ daily payments for food and lodging from $104 to $164 a day.

The changes would mean thousands of dollars in extra income for legislators and, at least in some years, millions of dollars in extra spending for the state.

Debate quickly erupted online.

Dozens of people left comments on the News & Observer’s Facebook page, and dozens more shared it for their own friends to comment on. Some were supportive, others were skeptical.

The most popular comment came from someone who called for higher salaries, along with term limits and campaign finance reform.

Another well-liked comment suggested: “Put it on the ballot and see what your bosses think about whether you deserve a raise. That’s how it works in the real world. I don’t get to sign off on my own pay.”

Some on Twitter said – maybe joking, maybe not – that they’d only support the idea if legislators repeal House Bill 2 first.

Some also said North Carolina should end the practice of having legislators only serve part-time. Most states do that, but 10 states have full-time legislatures – and often, correspondingly high salaries.

Legislative pay elsewhere

NCSL tracks the ways each state legislature pays its lawmakers, although it doesn’t track the average compensation in each state to create rankings.

Looking just at salary, North Carolina’s pay is on the lower side. Legislators make $13,951 annually here, and even if the bill being discussed passes, it won’t change the salary – just mileage and per diem pay.

Salaries range from $0 in New Mexico to $100,113 in California, where legislators work full-time. Most are in the $20,000 to $60,000 range.

States also offer different per diem payments and mileage rates. Of the states with a set mileage rate, North Carolina’s is the lowest. It’s also one of the few states that limit reimbursements to one round trip per week, according to the NCSL. On the other end of the spectrum, Texas even offers mileage reimbursement for legislators’ private planes.

North Carolina’s per diem rate of $104 for each day in session is slightly below average. Most states pay more, some pay less and some pay none at all.

Salaries, mileage reimbursement and daily stipends in North Carolina have not changed in more than 20 years.

Around the country, payments vary to legislators for office supplies and staffers, plus benefits like insurance and retirement. In any state, those who live more than 50 miles from the capital city can also get special tax breaks.

North Carolina lawmakers receive $559 per month, or $6,708 annually, as an expense allowance.

How expensive is it to be a legislator?

It’s not cheap to be a public servant. People representing areas far from Raleigh often rent homes or apartments near the capital since their sessions can take up much of the year.

They also are expected to maintain offices and mail updates to constituents.

In North Carolina, if the legislature stays in session for 220 days – about seven months, typical in odd-numbered years with long sessions – legislators will earn $22,880 in per diem payments to go with their $13,951 salary. If this pay raise bill passes, the per diem pay for that same period would rise to $36,080.

The current rate leaves state lawmakers with about $10,700 to spend on food in that hypothetical seven-month session. That’s because the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Raleigh is $1,016 a month ($12,192 for 12 months) according to website Rent Jungle.

If they want to be more frugal, there are decent apartments to be found for as low as $700 a month. But if they want to be downtown, they will have to shell out a bit more: At the swanky Skyhouse apartments, for example, one-bedroom rents range from $1,300 to $1,600 a month.

And if they want someplace a little bigger to stay when in town, the average price of a rental home in Raleigh is $1,290 a month, according to real estate website Zillow.

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