State Politics

Here’s what NC legislators took home in state pay in 2015

Senate leader Phil Berger, left, and House Speaker Tim Moore were the highest-compensated members of the General Assembly in 2015.
Senate leader Phil Berger, left, and House Speaker Tim Moore were the highest-compensated members of the General Assembly in 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

In 2015, during a legislative session that dragged on for eight months, North Carolina legislators on average took home about $48,000 each in total pay.

That included base pay of $13,951 for rank-and-file House and Senate members, plus mileage and expense reimbursements and $104 a day in subsistence pay while they had to be in Raleigh.

The average pay was more than in most years because the $104 a day added up as the session stretched from January into late September. Most years, lawmakers get $30,000 to $40,000.

The long session brought talk of increases to legislators’ compensation, and even whether the part-time legislature should be full-time. But no changes were made, and none are expected in this year’s short session, which begins April 25. Legislators’ pay hasn’t been increased in more than two decades.

As you might expect, the leaders of the House and Senate were the two highest-paid legislators in 2015, according to data from the General Assembly controller. Their base pay – $38,151 a year under state statute – is about three times greater than that of regular legislators, and they get more for expenses.

The legislative income of Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, totaled $84,487. That included subsistence pay of nearly $27,000 – $104 a day for 256 days – plus an expense allowance of $17,000 and travel reimbursement of about $2,800.

Berger, an attorney, wasn’t available for an interview late last week, but his office released a statement. Much of what a legislator takes home, he said, helps cover the cost of travel and a place to stay in Raleigh. Most legislators don’t do it for the money, he said.

“It sure wasn’t the pay that kept the General Assembly in session close to 250 days in 2015, and I know from personal experience that being away from your regular full-time job for two-thirds of a year is a good way to test whether you’ll be able to keep it,” Berger said.

$84,487 Total compensation for Phil Berger, leader of the state Senate

$58,002 Pay for Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, highest among rank-and-file members

$20,659 Pay for Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, the lowest in the legislature

Taxpayers paid House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, slightly less than Berger, in part because he didn’t get speaker’s pay until he took that title in mid-January. Moore got $83,873, including $37,305 in base salary. He got nearly $29,000 in subsistence pay – $104 a day for 276 days – plus about $12,000 in expense reimbursements and $6,000 for travel.

Moore said his legislative salary is a “drop in the bucket” compared with what he earns as a lawyer.

“I’ve been practicing law for 20 years now; during that time built a pretty good practice,” he said.

But Moore said his General Assembly duties cost him work back home. He recently turned down a client because a trial would be held in May, when the legislature will be in session.

“But you know what? I’m glad to do it because I think we really make a difference and make things better for the state,” Moore said.

I don’t think you’ll find anyone who came into this profession for the pay.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican

Moore added that the relatively low lawmakers’ pay in North Carolina compared with many other states is a barrier for some residents to serving. Many legislators give up their jobs, or are retired, self-employed or independently wealthy, he said.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, made the most of any rank-and-file legislator in 2015, according to the data — $58,002. Living more than a four-hour drive from Raleigh in the western part of the state, he got the highest mileage reimbursement – nearly $7,100. He also put in for more subsistence reimbursements than anyone else – $30,264, or $104 a day for 291 days.

Hise said he served on about a dozen committees that met between sessions. As a top legislator in the Health and Human Services realm, he also spent many days working on Medicaid law changes.

“That has not been an easy lift by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

Hise, in his third Senate term, said his legislative work keeps him from earning much money back home, where he works part-time at a community college.

“It’s kind of a ‘pick up what you can,’” he said, adding that he made about $10,000 aside from his General Assembly pay in 2015.

Hise also said the time spent in Raleigh makes it difficult to serve. He has twin 8-year-old boys, and being away from his family is a struggle, Hise said. When in Raleigh, he shares an apartment with Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, in part to cut expenses.

“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who came into this profession for the pay,” Hise said. “But you can make it in this profession.”

Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, took in by far the least of any legislator – $20,659. As a local resident, he declines subsistence pay and mileage reimbursement.

Moore said he’s fine with the pay he receives leading the 120-member House. He won’t propose a raise for legislators soon.

“There’s not a lot of sympathy out there for politicians to get a pay increase,” he said.

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