State Politics

State lawmakers weigh raising reimbursements

People mill about on Bicentennial Plaza with the N.C. Legislative Building in the background on May 15, 2014.
People mill about on Bicentennial Plaza with the N.C. Legislative Building in the background on May 15, 2014.

Describing themselves as being in a “Catch 22” over their compensation, a committee of state lawmakers on Monday approved a proposal to increase their subsistence and travel expense reimbursements, which have been the same for more than 20 years.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell recommended raising per diems that lawmakers receive while in session from $104 to $163, and mileage reimbursements from 29 cents to 54 cents a mile. Those rates would equal federal and Internal Revenue Service standards. Hartsell is a Concord Republican and co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee.

Hartsell’s proposed legislation contains no recommendations to alter base pay, which is $13,951 for rank-and-file legislators.

Citing analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hartsell noted that North Carolina salaries, per diems and reimbursements have lagged significantly behind inflation.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican told WRAL in Raleigh that before the General Assembly acts, he wants an independent commission to consider the matter.

“I don’t think that’s something we would pass this session,” Moore told the TV station.

During Monday’s hearing of the oversight committee, members by voice vote unanimously approved the proposal, meaning it can now be filed as a bill during this year’s short session. Hartsell said that if the proposed legislation makes it to a vote and is approved, it would not take effect until the next legislative session.

Hartsell, who was selected to tackle the issue because he is not running for re-election, said the cost to the state would be an estimated $1.4 million a year.

Committee member Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat who has served in the House seven terms, addressed the political sensitivities.

“I've been here 14 years and every time it comes up, for pay increase, it goes nowhere,” she said, adding that the public harbors misperceptions about legislative salaries and thinks lawmakers “make $100,000 a year.”

In 2015, the legislative session ran for eight months, from January into late September. Legislators on average took home about $48,000 each in total pay. They don't typically make that much when sessions are shorter.

Another committee co-chairman, Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, argued North Carolina faces challenges attracting quality new people to the legislature. “They just can't afford it,” he said.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said Senate leader Phil Berger had asked leadership to explore the issue.

“I think we will hear more and more of a conversation about this over the next month or so,” Apodaca said. He noted that he lives 275 miles from the General Assembly and believes lawmakers’ inability to adjust their pay has acted as a “drain on the citizen legislature.”