The case for a full-time legislature in North Carolina

Sen. Harry Brown, one of the chief budget-writers, says the third continuing budget resolution will likely extend the deadline into mid-September.
Sen. Harry Brown, one of the chief budget-writers, says the third continuing budget resolution will likely extend the deadline into mid-September. cseward@newsobserver.com

According to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, North Carolinians agree on one thing: The General Assembly is doing a poor job. With the budget over two months late and major disagreements between the Republican-led chambers on major issues such as sales tax distribution and teacher assistants, no one should be surprised that public approval is so low.

Too often critics point to ideological differences, even among the Republican leadership of the House and Senate, as the reason why the budget is late or that major reforms don’t take place. Although political differences exist and explain some of the problems the General Assembly experiences, there is a more fundamental problem in North Carolina. North Carolina can no longer operate with a part-time legislature because we are a growing state with increasingly complex policy issues.

The legislative dysfunction we are experiencing is not rooted in the controlling political party, as Democrats had similar problems when they ran Jones Street. The real cause of legislative dysfunction is that we no longer live in the 19th century when state government and the accompanying budget were significantly smaller. The issues faced by the General Assembly and the size of the budget necessitate a professional legislature that can spend sufficient time on governing to solve the problems facing the state.

Since 1980, the General Assembly has passed a budget on or before the June 30 deadline only seven times. When tens of billions of dollars are at stake and there are over 1,600 bills in which House and Senate members take action, having longer sessions and delayed budgets is understandable.

The National Conference of State Legislatures classifies eight states as having full-time legislatures, including states much larger than North Carolina, such as California, but also those significantly smaller, such as Wisconsin and Alaska. North Carolina is considered to have a hybrid legislature by the NCSL, a category in which legislators spend two-thirds of their time in activities related to their political office, but whose total compensation is not enough to allow them to live without another source of income.

Increasing a legislator’s annual salary to $80,000, the average of all full-time state legislators, would add approximately $10 million to the cost of operating the legislature. Citizens would undoubtedly balk at the additional expense, especially given the legislature’s low approval rating, but the good governance that would accrue if North Carolina adopted a full-time legislature would more than offset the costs.

The main argument for a full-time legislature is that House and Senate members need more time to fully deliberate public policy issues. Tax reform has been considered for over 30 years, but a complete modernization of the system has not occurred, in part because legislators lack the time to take on this complex system. Other issues, such as mental health reform, don’t get done because these policy issues are difficult to do in the midst of regular legislative business and the desire to keep sessions short.

Likewise, many issues during this session seemed rushed and decided with little to no public input. Critics argued these bills were voted into law without deliberation because leadership did not want input, but the fact remains that many bills need further scrutiny by legislators and the public and, without a full-time legislature with more time devoted to committee meetings and public hearings, this will not happen.

Another reason for investing in a full-time legislature is to make it possible that a wider range of citizens serve in the House and Senate. The current legislative salary of just under $14,000 per year, plus monthly expenses while in session, makes it virtually impossible for most North Carolinians to consider running for these offices. Most teachers, service sector employees or those without a second income stream cannot serve in the legislature that is supposed to represent its citizens.

Governmental reform issues like employing a full-time legislature or nonpartisan redistricting rarely capture citizens’ attention. Without fundamental change in the way we conduct state politics, we will continue to see missed budget deadlines and be disappointed in the policy decisions our legislators make.

David B. McLennan, Ph.D., is a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College.