Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Spotlight on ‘citizen’ lawmaker pay in NC

State lawmakers say they’re often surprised at how many constituents think they’re paid like members of Congress.

But in North Carolina, state House and Senate members say, it’s often the constituency left surprised by the rank-and-file’s actual salary: $13,591 a year. It is supplemented by a $104 per day allowance, a monthly expense allotment and mileage reimbursements that work out to roughly $30,000 to $40,000 in annual take home pay.

Members of Congress are paid $174,000.

State lawmaker pay hasn’t risen since the mid-1990s.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, singled out the mileage reimbursement – 29-cents per mile for one round trip per week – as “a dead net loser.”

Now the compensation rates, along with the timing and the length of legislative sessions, are getting a fresh look in the General Assembly.

Still, the level of pay has been a persistent grumble among some at the legislature, mostly expressed in worries that it keeps some from being able to serve in what is regarded as a “citizen legislature.” And lawmakers just concluded one of the longest legislative sessions of the modern era – underscoring that North Carolina is a state without limits or deadlines on the length of each year’s session.

This week, a national group is expected to present findings that could become the basis for changes.

Lawmakers on the state’s Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee in May asked the National Conference of State Legislatures to independently research and provide “information on legislator salaries and per diem in other states than can be used to consider whether a different salary and per diem structure could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the North Carolina General Assembly,” according to the approved plan.

NCSL is also expected to present on “the timing and length of legislative sessions in other states that can be used to consider whether a different session schedule could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the North Carolina General Assembly.”

While public concern about legislator compensation and comfort is common, there’s much more at stake, analysts say. The relatively low salary and heavy schedule – aside from the often controversial nature of lawmaking – is seen as a deterrent that keeps some from running for statehouse.

Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan political research group in Raleigh, said the state has reached “a juncture” where considering the structure of pay and session lengths makes sense.

Past NCSL dispatches agree.

“Maintaining adequate legislative compensation promotes diversity among elected officials so the entire population is adequately represented,” wrote NCSL’s Morgan Cullen in a 2011 report on lagging compensation. “If pay is a significant barrier to public service, many potential candidates will not be able to serve in the legislature.”

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican and House speaker pro tem, said the mileage reimbursement needs adjustment first and foremost. He called it a bad deal for legislators who drive from far corners of the state to reach Raleigh.

But Stam said legislators in office know what they are getting into with regard to the commitment and salary, the latter of which he said may be “politically impossible” to increase substantially.

Stewart agrees that lawmakers may be pressured out of supporting pay increases or softer schedules for themselves, as the public can easily criticize them for “feathering their own nests.”

Legislators are already battling criticism over whether they’re focusing enough on fair teacher salaries.

But bringing in an outside body to shape the discussion, such as NCSL is expected to do, could give legislators something to lean on, observers suggested in interviews.

Presentations on the issues are scheduled for Wednesday at 1 p.m. in room 544 of the Legislative Office Building in downtown.

By Benjamin Brown, of The Insider state government news service.

How the money stacks up

Here’s a comparison of North Carolina legislative pay with that of neighbors and similarly sized states, according to National Conference of State Legislatures 2015 data.

North Carolina

Base pay: $13,951/year Member; $17,048/year Majority & Minority Leader; $21,739/year Deputy & Speaker Pro Tempore; $38,151/year President Pro Tempore & Speaker. Per diem: $104/day set by statute. $0.29 per mile set by statute. Monthly expense allowance: $559/month, Member; $666/month Majority & Minority Leader; $836/month Deputy Pro Tempore & Speaker Pro Tempore; $1,413/month President Pro Tempore & Speaker.

Virginia

Base pay: $18,000/year Senate; $17,640/year House. Per diem: $180/day for senators; $179/day for House members.

Tennessee

Base pay: $20,884/year Per diem: $198/legislative day; tied to federal rate.

Georgia

Base pay: $17,342/year Per diem: $173/day

Michigan

Base pay: $71,685/year Per diem: $10,800/year expense allowance for session and interim; set by the compensation commission.

New Jersey

Base pay: $49,000/year; $65,333 for President of the Senate and Assembly Speaker Per diem: None

Ohio

Base pay: $60,584/year Per diem: None

Pennsylvania

Base pay: $85,338.65/year Per diem: $159/day

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