Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
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.