Raleigh, N.C. — A one-sentence change tacked into broader legislation earlier this month helps a single state employee, tweaking state law so he can again get paid to serve on a state commission while on vacation from his full-time state job.
Bill Peaslee is a chief deputy commissioner at the North Carolina Industrial Commission. He's also on the state Property Tax Commission and has been for about six years.
Under Gov. Pat McCrory, Peaslee drew his regular state salary and was also paid the daily wage tax commission members get to sit for several days each month hearing appeals from around the state. When Gov. Roy Cooper took office, a new regime at the state Department of Revenue looked at state laws against employees double-dipping on salary and questioned whether Peaslee should draw both paychecks.
Peaslee, a former general counsel for the North Carolina Republican Party, brought the issue before Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and other state legislators. He'd been taking vacation time from his $115,494-a-year job at the Industrial Commission to make $450 to $500 a day at the tax commission. His tax commission pay last year totaled $24,500.
Peaslee said he was paid for some meetings this year but served for free the last two months.
General Assembly leadership tacked their response into legislation that dealt with more than half a dozen unrelated sections of state code. Their change makes it clear: Any state employee who's also a member of the Property Tax Commission should be paid by the tax commission, too. There are five members on that commission, but Peaslee is the only state employee, and the legislation is meant to compensate him for meetings he's already attended as well as the ones going forward.
"Why would a state employee be treated any differently?" Peaslee asked Friday. "What I do on my vacation time is up to me."
The new bill language passed the same day it became public: Aug. 3, during a one-day special session. It was part of House Bill 770, which started life as legislation on underground storage tank remediation but had morphed into a grab-bag titled "Various Clarifying Changes" when it emerged from a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators appointed to work out bill details.
That group had little to no say over the language, though, according to state Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a member of the conference committee. The full bill came from House and Senate leadership, he said.
"Technically I signed the report, but there was no conference I was involved in," said McGrady.
Berger's office said the change is a fair one.
"This state employee had been taking vacation days from his job in order to attend those meetings on his own time and had previously been compensated – like every other member of the commission," spokeswoman Amy Auth said in an email. "There was a new interpretation of the law this spring, so the legislature took steps to clear up the ambiguity. Sen. Berger and many of his colleagues do not believe any current or future members of this commission should be discriminated against and shortchanged for their work simply because they are a state employee."
The state law against employees drawing two paychecks has been on the books since 1979, and it's got a carve out for General Assembly members who are paid to attend commission meetings outside of the legislative session. Some confusion crept in when the legislature separated the Property Tax Commission from other state commissions, increasing the pay there and eventually allowing the commission to set its own pay.
New laws approving these increases didn't say anything about not paying state employees. When Cooper's Department of Revenue put the issue before the Attorney General's Office earlier this year, the office issued a six-page letter. Since the old law says state employees shouldn't draw per diem salaries for commission work and the laws increasing tax commission pay are silent on the issue, the two join together to "establish a clear public policy against the payment," the Attorney General's Office said.
Peaslee noted that the legislative change to undo this interpretation, if it becomes law, will affect any future state employees who serve on the commission. The bill is on Cooper's desk, and his press office said it's one of several he's reviewing and will decide on soon whether to sign it or veto it.