Low pay limits who serves in General Assembly

Posted May 28, 2014 1:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 29, 2014 12:36 p.m. EDT

Money generic, dollars

— A bill filed last week that would more than double the pay of most North Carolina legislators is likely to languish in the House this session, but proponents say raising lawmakers’ salaries would ensure the General Assembly reflects the diversity of the state.

Rep. Robert Brawley, R-Iredell, the bill’s sponsor, said raising legislative salaries for the first time in two decades, from $13,951 to $36,000, would attract lawmakers from a wider range of economic backgrounds.

“Everybody I know that’s down here is being supported from either having been very successful in business and having an income that’s not affected by their being here, or their spouse is working and helping them pay bills,” Brawley said.

The bill will not be taken up this session, House leaders said, but Brawley remains optimistic about the future of the legislation.

“I certainly hope we do have the fortitude to take it up and discuss the issue,” he said. “Representative government works best when it is truly representative.”

Raising legislative salaries would foster legislators with interests closer to those of the average citizen, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

“We want to make sure we get a great diversity of people who serve as legislators,” McKissick said. “Increasingly, the only people able to serve are those that are retired, those that are wealthy or those that are self-employed.”

The issue of pay raises should be evaluated by a bipartisan commission from the private sector, taking the issue out of legislators’ hands, he said.

Political scientist Steven Greene of North Carolina State University said professionalized legislatures are better equipped to tackle complex policy.

“You should absolutely be paying them like professionals,” Greene said, adding that a lack of professionalization skews the demographics of the statehouse.

“It dramatically affects who is able to serve in the legislature,” he said. “The super-low pay we have means it’s people who can afford to go to the legislature for several months in a year. It stacks the demographics of the legislature in a very particular way.”

Brawley said legislators’ responsibilities, including helping constituents with local issues such as law enforcement concerns and insurance claims, extend long after the end of the session.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get a call about – or what time of night,” he said. “I’ve had calls at 1 in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning. From a time standpoint, it’s not just a part-time job.”

North Carolina’s legislature meets on a part-time basis, with some lawmakers splitting their time between legislative sessions and other jobs. But the state’s growing population and hefty budget give lawmakers a daunting workload.

The National Conference of State Legislatures considers North Carolina a blend between a part- and a full-time legislature.

Salaries vary widely among statehouses, along with per diem pay, according to NCSL data from April. Some small states, such as Vermont, pay lawmakers only during the legislative session on a weekly basis. Others, such as South Dakota, pay a flat rate per session.

Legislators in Michigan, which ranks slightly above North Carolina in population, earn more than $70,000 a year, while Virginia lawmakers earn a modest $18,000.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, who opposes the bill, said legislative pay raises should come only after discussion generated by the public.

"There’s no way we should be debating this issue this session,” Glazier said. “There may come a time, but it is hardly right now.”

Brawley said he has faced backlash for proposing a pay raise for legislators at a time of public outrage about teacher raises.

“I do think it will be a lost cause if we don’t do something for the teachers before deciding on this,” he said.