WRAL Investigates

N.C. lawmakers' pay unfair, outdated?

Posted July 21, 2010

— State lawmakers get paid from several different pots. There's a base salary, a monthly expense budget, travel reimbursement and a per diem when they're in session – a per diem they collect even on the weekends.

During the recent short session, lawmakers had a lot on their plate – painful budget cuts, ethics reform, expanding the state's DNA database and dozens of other heated issues.

They were gaveled into session 35 days. However, most received a $104 per diem for 58 days, the calendar length of the short session. Weekend pay alone cost taxpayers almost $400,000.

“It would be much better and much clearer if we had a reasonable wage and if we would reimburse people for actual expenses, so you wouldn’t pay somebody the same that lives in Sanford as somebody who lives in Murphy,” said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of NC Policy Watch.

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Most lawmakers also took the per diem when they were absent from the regular session for personal or health reasons – though some missed days because they were in committee meetings.

Twenty-six out of 50 senators missed a total of 93 days in the short session, but collectively took almost $10,000 in per diem for days they weren't there. On the House side, 65 members had leave totaling 160 days, yet took the per diem totaling more than $16,000.

Of Wake County's delegation, Democratic representatives Grier Martin and Darren Jackson did not take the supplemental pay. Everyone else did, despite the luxury of being able to stay at home, unlike people from other parts of the state.

“In an ideal world, everyone when they were not working for the General Assembly would turn down that expense money when they don’t have the expenses,” Fitzsimon said.

Fitzsimon said he thinks the per diem issue is just part of a bigger problem when it comes to legislative pay.

“It is virtually impossible for an average North Carolinian to serve in the General Assembly,” he said.

Damon Circosta of the North Carolina Center For Voter Education agrees.

“It's really not a truly representative body, a truly citizens legislature, and one of the big reasons is that we don't pay enough to let anybody go down there and serve,” he said.

Pay is a politically dangerous and sometimes misunderstood issue for lawmakers. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling showed 60 percent of people thought lawmakers made at least $50,000.

At just under $14,000 a year, North Carolina ranks 30th in legislative base pay for non-officers. That pales in comparison to states with similar size populations. Michigan lawmakers get almost $80,000 and an expense allowance. New Jersey pays $49,000 but no per diem. Virginia lawmakers hold shorter sessions, make $18,000 and get a higher per diem than North Carolina.

“It's a difficult conundrum to fix, and fixing it's going to require a lot of education of the citizens of North Carolina,” Circosta said.

There has been talk about creating a commission to study legislative pay and recommend any changes, including raising the salary. However, that pay hike would have to be approved by the lawmakers themselves who haven't had a pay raise since 1995.

44 Comments

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  • Vietnam Vet Jul 22, 7:43 p.m.

    OMG!!! There's actually a legislative body that doesn't simply vote in their OWN salaries and raises??? Unheard of!!!

  • lalaloo Jul 22, 3:49 p.m.

    wayneboyd, thank you. I do realize you didn't try and belittle me and I realize that I do come off as defensive, which I guess I am a bit. I am just disillusioned by the "state" and how they never look out for their most underpaid workers. Even with the across the board 2% raises that we used to get, 2% of $20,000 and 2% of $200,000 is a BIG difference.

  • wayneboyd Jul 22, 3:14 p.m.

    LaLaLoo, I did not in any way ask you those questions to belittle or put down anyone who works for the government. The members of my family who do work for them that do it for the benefits are deer hunters and sports fans, too they have wives who have good jobs that basically support them. I can relate to your delimma, with you trapped in a position such as you are and the way Washington is destroying the value of the dollar I'm sure it is very stressful trying to make ends meet. I truly wish you the best of luck.

  • whatusay Jul 22, 1:52 p.m.

    How many of our legislators are sponsoring this push thru lobbyists to get new pay guidelines? This story did not surface on it's own. I would bet money that someone is being paid to promote new pay guidelines in the news media for legislators. Who will benefit from this, that's your answer.

  • Mugu Jul 22, 1:33 p.m.

    Being an elected official, they should just get a stipend, let's say 300% of the poverty level, a state credit card for their official travels and commuting to and from their district and a housing allowance for a Raleigh residence, all to total no more than $50k per year.

    These guys spend a mint to get into office, let's keep them out.

  • mpheels Jul 22, 1:15 p.m.

    lalaloo, I know they had a choice. My point is that, as others have said, we have the good 'ol boys network running the state because they are the only ones who can afford to do it. Their payment for serving in the GA is not enough to live off of alone for a full year, they have to have another source of income when the GA isn't in session, so there are really only a few people who can afford to serve. We need to adjust the General Assembly so it is truly a full time, year round job (in Raleigh while in session, working full time for their constituents the rest of the year). Pay legislators a reasonable salary and hold them to the same travel and per diem rules as other state employees, then the opportunity to run for office and serve will truly be open to anyone who is qualified, not just the wealthy few.

  • lalaloo Jul 22, 12:54 p.m.

    wayneboyd, as I said I am looking to leave. Unfortunately I do *have* to work, far from retirement age and I have other mouths to feed and bills to pay. So I continue to apply for any and all jobs for which I am qualified until I can leave the State Employees Association, hopefully to never return.

    I am glad to hear your relatives like the time off, I myself need money, (not time off) and this is def. NOT the place to get it. And as we learned last year, they can always take your money back anytime they want.

  • wayneboyd Jul 22, 12:22 p.m.

    LaLaLoo, I'm not saying that you do not deserve to be paid better, I have family members who work for the government and they for the most part enjoy working half the time for less money. Truth they'd rather have time to kill than money to spend.We both make choices, If you do not like your salary, you always have the option to get out of the state employee association and work in the private sector, sadly seems you'll have to get in line if you want a job.

  • whatusay Jul 22, 11:37 a.m.

    Most politicians don't have to quit their jobs to serve. How many poor politicians do you know? If they want to help the citizens of NC they can run for public office. If they can't afford to run for public office, be sure you vote for the right person. Simple, vote for honest people, not the bozo's we have in office at present.

  • lalaloo Jul 22, 11:24 a.m.

    mpheels, that was their choice. No one forced them to take the job. I'll offer them a tip, AFA the "unfair, outdated" pay, do what I do, grin and bear it until you can get out.

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