The low pay North Carolina legislators receive is likely a top concern for many who contemplate serving. The small salary of about $14,000 a year for a commitment that often goes beyond the half of full-time surely gives pause to most.
And it should also unquestionably give pause to the rest of us.
Certainly, the low pay provides a powerful symbol of the kind of participatory democracy voters like to cherish. It represents public service at its best. Nothing, however, could be further from the demanding realities of our time.
Our well-intentioned low legislative salaries and the requirement to serve part-time undermine, respectively, true citizenship participation in North Carolina and the overall running of our state. It is nothing more than an archaic approach to democratic representation. On one hand, it restricts opportunities for representation to a small and limited category of citizens; on the other, it limits the effectiveness of our most important institution of state government – the General Assembly – in meeting the needs of a modern and complex economy and society.
North Carolina falls inside a gray area when it comes to what is required of our representatives in terms of time commitment. With legislative sessions ranging from six weeks to six months, plus the need to meet committee and constituency demands, most legislators cannot hold full-time jobs. Given such financial and professional constraints, the result is a legislature made up of only members who have the luxury of being able to serve. The majority of our lawmakers are attorneys, business owners, executives and simply the independently wealthy – a fact that makes for democratic participation more reminiscent of the 1800s than a 21st century democracy.
But beyond citizen participation, there also lies a very important institutional consideration.
With the power of our local governments directly and actively deriving from the state legislature, alongside an institutionally weak governor, the demand on our legislators to deliver on policy in a timely and effective manner has become more important. As our state and economy continue to grow, so grows the need for more responsive governing.
The traditionally short legislative sessions no longer suffice.
Our nationally ninth-ranked, half-a-trillion-dollar economy and the state’s ever-expanding population of 10 million require none other than full-time service on the part of our citizen representatives in Raleigh. Working alongside the executive branch and state bureaucracy, the General Assembly is the single and principal institution broadly entrusted with ensuring North Carolina’s competitiveness in our union and in the world – not an easy task amid today’s need for complex economic and environmental regulations, challenging public investment, intricate public resource management and so on.
To meet such demands, we may be forcibly, reluctantly and very slowly drifting toward more than just a part-time legislature. But we are only letting the problem exacerbate itself.
Every couple of years or so, the issue of spending related to our North Carolina legislators’ salaries somewhat forces itself into the public discourse. With the current budget of $21 billion to run the state, our total legislators’ pay barely clocks in near $2.5 million dollars – a measly figure for a group charged with running such a huge enterprise.
It is time we hold a serious debate about the issue. We must move to meet the financial needs of our citizen representatives and the time commitment requirements of an ever-evolving and growing role of the General Assembly.
Nino Saviano, a longtime North Carolina resident, is a Republican strategist in Washington.