$50,000 a day, but do you care?
Posted July 18, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — As lawmakers continue to snarl at each other over the state budget in the July swelter, predictions that the state House and Senate would wrap up their summer session by the end of June look laughably optimistic in hindsight.
But while concerns inside the Legislative Building might be trend toward running through the available supply of seersucker and ruined vacation plans, it's less clear whether it registers with anyone outside of Raleigh that lawmakers are hanging about the capitol longer than expected.
"Nobody cares," said Steve Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State University.
People might care about what laws legislators pass, especially if those laws affect their daily lives, but the timetable doesn't really matter. Even the message that it costs $50,000 extra per day to run the legislature when the General Assembly is in session doesn't seem to hit home with a population that's not really clear on how long lawmakers should be in session anyway.
The biggest pending piece of business before the General Assembly is the state budget and how much to raise teacher salaries. While the teacher salary issue is a big one, state government has continued to operate on the two-year budget passed in 2013. The delay has put a pinch on county governments and school systems, which are unsure of what to expect in terms of new state funding or policy, but doesn't seem to have filtered down to rank-and-file voters.
"It's a big thing for institutions right now," Greene said. "This is an example of the kind of story journalists value much more than their readers."
Polling numbers seem to bear that out, said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling. Last summer, he said, approval ratings for lawmakers sunk lower the longer they were in Raleigh. But that had more to do with passing a series of controversial laws, such as a measure aimed at limiting the availability of abortion, than the mere fact of them sitting in session.
"It was stuff that was grabbing people's attention and making them mad," Jensen said.
This year, one particular member may have reason to be concerned.
"It is potentially hurting House Speaker Thom Tillis," Jensen said.
Tillis, who is running as the Republican U.S. Senate candidate versus Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, has seen the number of voters who view him favorably slip as the summer session has worn on. That may have as much to do with hard-hitting campaign-style ads that have taken swipes at the speaker as much as the length of session.
As for the General Assembly overall, this summer session doesn't seem to be having much of an impact, he said. Even one of the most controversial measures of this summer, a bill to open the state to natural gas drilling, leaves roughly a third of voters undecided.
Are they really all that late?
A House resolution filed this week forecasts that lawmakers will leave town on Friday, July 25. If that date were to come to pass, it wouldn't make this session a terrible outlier.
In odd-numbered years, such as 2013, lawmakers start work in January. In even-numbered years, work begins in May for the legislative "short session." In both cases, there is no hard-and-fast limit on how long they can meet, although a pre-July 4 adjournment is generally considered expeditious.
Even throwing out 2001, the year lawmakers didn't adjourn their regular session until Dec. 6, there are plenty of July, August and September dates on the list of adjournment dates.
In 2011, lawmakers adjourned on June 18 but then held a series of special sessions throughout the year, stringing out the work that normally would have been done in late June and July. Last year, lawmakers adjourned July 26.
What's in the $50,000-a-day number?
The state budget sets aside roughly $52 million to run the General Assembly every year, or about 0.25 percent of the state's annual budget. That number doesn't change based on the length of the legislative session.
Still, it's not uncommon to see critics of whichever party is in control of the General Assembly – or antsy reporters hoping to head out on vacation – cite the figure that it costs $50,000 for every day that lawmakers remain in session.
This is a $50,000 increase to the daily expenses of running the legislative branch compared with when lawmakers aren't formally in session. The rest of the year, legislative staff is still at work drafting bills and providing information to study committees that meet year round. Also, the legislative complex remains open to both office workers and visitors.
"This is the cost of having a government," Greene said.
The $50,000 figure is something of an estimate, since the legislature doesn't break out the extra cost by line item.
"You could assume the additional cost per day is the additional per diem, supplies, temporary employees, interns, pages and utilities cost, etc... that is required during session," said Wesley Taylor in the legislature's Financial Services Division.
Staffers arrive at that number by estimating that it costs $1 million more per month to operate with lawmakers in town than when the session is adjourned. That's divided over a four-week month and a five-day work week to arrive at $50,000.
That cost isn't fixed however. For example, lawmakers have the option of turning down their per diems – daily payments meant to offset the cost of commuting to or staying in Raleigh. If all 170 House and Senate members declined their $104 per diems, it would save the state $17,680, according to Taylor.