Raleigh, N.C. — While the prolonged budget stalemate has idled most lawmakers, the administrative cost of their stay in Raleigh continues to rise.
According to Legislative Services Controller Wesley Taylor, each extra week of session adds $210,000 in expenses over and above the basic operating cost for the legislative complex.
Lawmakers on Tuesday completed their eighth extra week of session since the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year on June 30. Subtracting a week of vacation lawmakers took in early July, that comes out to an additional $1.47 million for the extended session.
The additional expense, Taylor said, covers lawmakers' per diem and travel allowances and additional staff hours to assist lawmakers, as well as printing, utilities, postage and phone expenses.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the chief budget writer for the House, said the General Assembly's third continuing resolution to keep state spending going until a new budget is in place will probably run through Sept. 15, which will bring the total cost of the delay to $2.1 million.
Where the numbers come from
Taylor said the 11-year average cost to simply run the legislative complex when lawmakers aren't in session is about $4.1 million per month. When legislators are in session, that 11-year average monthly cost rises by about $840,000, coming in at just over $5 million.
Lawmakers set aside funds every year to pay for the operation of the legislative complex. The budget for the past fiscal year was about $52 million.
Taylor said they generally budget for 23 weeks of session for long sessions, which are in odd-numbered years, and about eight weeks of session for short sessions, which are in even-numbered years.
Unlike many other state agencies, the legislative complex can carry over unspent funds from year to year as a reserve, Taylor said.
"Some years, they'll have less. Some years, they'll have more," he said.
However, few sessions in the past decade have actually run shorter than budgeted for, and off-session costs have increased in recent years. Meanwhile, the budget for the legislative complex, like most areas of state government, has been cut. As a result, the administration has had to dip into its cash reserves to keep up. Taylor says the reserve currently stands around $7 million.
Putting it in context
Whether the price tag for the delay is worthwhile depends on one's perspective, of course.
The current $1.47 million cost is only about 3 percent over the usual annual budget for the legislature, and it's less than a rounding error in the context of the $21.74 billion state budget deal that's caused the lengthy stay in Raleigh.
However, in the world outside Jones Street, $1.47 million is real money, especially in light of the battle over education funding. That sum would have paid for salary and benefits for 46 teacher assistants or 25 teachers, according to average employment cost figures from the state Department of Public Instruction.
"There’s a lot of different things you could spend it on," said Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union. "You could give it to education. You could give it to HHS. You could put it in Medicaid. Lots of areas you could spend that money on. But we just can’t reach an agreement.
"I regret we’ve had to spend this money, but government doesn’t always work well," Tucker said. "Today, where we are between the two chambers, it’s not working well for us in the Senate."
House Speaker Tim Moore took issue with the comparison to teacher salaries.
"We don't really shift money around that way," Moore responded but agreed that the money could be better spent elsewhere than on the protracted session.
Still, he said, one key point causing the stalemate is funding for education, especially teaching assistants. House negotiators are holding out for more money than the Senate wants to agree to.
"I believe the greater costs would come if we don’t do our job the way we should, and we have some very key differences on what we’ve identified as priorities in the budget than other folks have," he said. "We believe in staying here and working hard to make sure we get the job right. I’ve always told folks it’s more important to do it right than to do it quick."
Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolna Association of Educators, described the budget delay simply as, "Every day is another TA."
"Continued budget delays by the General Assembly ... are causing confusion, tension and fear at our public schools," Ellis said. "Teacher assistants don’t know from one day to the next if they will have a job. North Carolina cannot afford to lose a generation of students by continually disregarding the resources they need to help them be successful – resources like teachers, teacher assistants, textbooks and technology.”
Empty chambers, rising frustration
As House and Senate leaders hold closed-door meetings that appear to be yielding scant progress, little legislative work is being done in public. House lawmakers held one committee meeting on a single bill Tuesday and had no bills on their floor calendar, while the Senate had no committee meetings and three non-controversial votes on its calendar.
Senators did, however, engage in some delay-related sniping.
Reading from a WRAL News story on the cost of the session, Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, urged Republican leaders to relent on teacher assistant funding and strike a deal quickly.
"Do we need to pull names for Secret Santa?" Van Duyn asked.
Sen Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, countered that the last time teacher assistants were fully funded, school districts used $90 million of the money for other purposes.
"What you’re really asking is why we’re still hanging around down here," Tillman told Van Duyn. "There’s a problem, but it ain’t over here."