Under the Dome

With more sessions to come, does NC still have a part-time 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

Former state Rep. Charles Jeter loved serving in the N.C. House, but in July 2016 – after two terms – he resigned. The work had taken a toll on his life outside of Raleigh. He had to refocus.

“For me personally, it was tragic, nothing short of tragic,” Jeter, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said of how the time commitment affected his life. He said he had to close his trucking business after 14 years and had put his family into financial ruin.

“I volunteered for the job, but I didn’t recognize, I didn’t realize the impact on my business, and my not being there every day, and spending so much time away,” he said.

And to Jeter, the General Assembly is no longer the part-time citizen legislature it was intended to be.

“You’re still spending 20-25 hours, 30 hours a week doing this job when we’re not in session,” Jeter said. “To me we’re already at full-time, and we don’t get compensated.”

The legislature is spending more time lawmaking, which makes it harder for lawmakers to have a job that supplements their income. In 2015, the session lasted until late September. In 2016, lawmakers came back for five special sessions. And while this year’s session was the second-quickest “long session” since 1973, lawmakers are scheduled to come back in August and September, and could add additional sessions before a self-imposed Nov. 15 redistricting deadline. (Long sessions start in January of odd-numbered years; even-numbered years have “short sessions” starting in spring.)

The constant work flow affects every lawmaker on Jones Street, but some have had to cut back on their other jobs. Others are aware that if they weren’t beyond their prime earning years, they wouldn’t be able to be a lawmaker.

Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, is one of the lawmakers who has had to scale back work because of the longer sessions. She was a hospice nurse when she was elected in 2012. During her first session, she was able to keep her job and work on the weekends and when session was adjourned. But during the 2015-16 session, things changed.

“We stayed so long,” she said. “My credentials had expired, so I went ahead and started the process (to renew).” But by the time she had everything in order, the next session was ready to begin, she said.

“I wasn’t too keen on that,” she said. “You would like to have some hours in your field still so you keep up to date with technology, with how they’re doing in the field.”

Cunningham said nurses have to be re-credentialed after six months of not practicing, and that second session she was out of practice for about nine months. During that time she kept up with her continuing education. Right now her credentials are “up in the air.”

Sen. Jim Davis, a Macon County Republican, is in the other group of lawmakers. He works about a day and a half a week at his orthodontic practice when session is in. He keeps that same schedule when session is adjourned so his patients are used to it. Davis, 70, said he wouldn’t have been able to be a lawmaker when he was younger.

“But somebody in their prime earning years, they wouldn’t be able to do this, unless they’re independently wealthy, and I certainly wasn’t,” he said. Davis travels more than 300 miles to and from Raleigh each week when the legislature is in, and that five-hour drive takes up a chunk of his time.

“So you combine my day and a half of practice, and three and a half days in Raleigh when session is going on, and extra session responsibilities, it makes a full schedule,” Davis said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures categorizes North Carolina as a “hybrid” legislature – meaning that members spend a significant amount of time being legislators, but the pay isn’t enough to live on. A total of 26 states are considered “hybrids,” according to the NCSL. Only 10 states have a full-time legislature. Members of the N.C. legislature are paid $13,951 a year, with leaders earning more – Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore make more than $38,000, and majority and minority leaders make more than $17,000.

Lawmakers also receive a $104 per diem for food and lodging and a $559 monthly expense allowance and get paid 29 cents for every mile they travel to and from session. Even factoring in the per diem and travel allowances, it’s still not easy to live on lawmaker pay. During a typical long session – which is about seven months – a lawmaker could make about $22,880 in per diem payments on top of their salary. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in North Carolina is $46,868.

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said there are two upsides to having a full-time legislature – more time to consider legislation and the ability for a wider range of people to run for office.

He said that looking at the composition of the legislature, you can see a lot of retired and wealthy individuals.

“(We) don’t have a lot of people employed in traditional jobs,” he said, noting it would be “too difficult” for someone employed in a traditional job to combine work life and political life.

Both chamber leaders – Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, and Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, are lawyers. Both minority party leaders, Sen. Dan Blue and Rep. Darren Jackson, both Wake County Democrats, are lawyers. And many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are lawyers.

McLennan said the General Assembly was created to be a part-time, citizen legislature and changing it could make lawmaking more of a profession and increase members’ tenures.

What would it take to become a full-time legislature?

“In a political stance, it would take both parties to kind of agree that they would support it, and that in today’s political environment would be a deal breaker, and convincing the North Carolina electorate,” McLennan said. “I think even if you can get past the hurdle of the legislature ... to get that passed by the public would be very challenging.”

McLennan said to pass a constitutional amendment leaders would have to make the case that a full-time legislature would lead to better governance, which would require overcoming public cynicism.

Davis, the senator from Macon County, said he doesn’t believe sessions are going to continue to get longer or that more work will be done during special or extra sessions.

“I think sometimes we adjourn, and the governor hasn’t considered all the bills, and he’s vetoed some, and we need to come back into session whether or not we’re going to override the veto. Sometimes the courts put issues before us that we have to consider, like redistricting,” Davis said. “I don’t anticipate it being the new norm. I feel like there is a real effort by leadership to minimize the extra sessions and to get our business done in time.”

He doesn’t see the need for a full-time legislature. “If the legislators keep heading toward the mission of getting appropriate legislation accomplished for the citizens and get it done in an efficient manner, then there is no reason in my opinion for it to be a full-time legislature,” Davis said.

However, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said he too thinks the legislature is at full-time status. The formal calls for August and September sessions allow lawmakers to deal with a variety of bills, including impeachment proceedings and proposed legislation on which the House and Senate didn’t reach agreement in the long session.

“I’m concerned that this legislature has become a full-time legislature,” he told reporters during a recent news conference at the Executive Mansion. “They need to come in and do their work, regarding dealing with gubernatorial vetoes. They need to do their work in redrawing districts ... and that really ought to be it. I hope that they can get their work done and go home. I think everybody would be happy.”

Back in 2015, when lawmakers met until late September, Berger said that limiting the session length was “probably the more politically feasible approach.” Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican, this year introduced a constitutional amendment that would limit the length of the session to end on or before June 30, and would require lawmakers to stay adjourned until at least Jan. 1 of the following year. The bill never made it out of a committee.

After the 2015 session then-Rep. Gary Pendleton, a Wake County Republican, established a bipartisan advisory commission to look at putting a constitutional limit on session length. Pendleton, who lost re-election in 2016, said nothing became of the committee, which also hoped to find a way to raise legislative pay.

He said the main purpose was to shorten the session, and he would tell other lawmakers that states with larger populations than North Carolina’s had session limits.

“It’s almost like some people want to come to Raleigh and get out of wherever they live,” Pendleton said. “I think there are so many rural legislators that didn’t want to take it up.”

Pendleton doesn’t believe the legislature is on its way to becoming a full-time legislature. He commended leadership for making the decision to adjourn and come back in later months to finish business instead of “sitting there for days and days” waiting for things to happen.

Whether or not the legislature makes moves on limiting the amount of time it meets, McLennan said as the state continues to grow, more “pressure is on the legislature to do more.”

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch

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