- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - As North Carolina’s population soars and annual sessions of the General Assembly often extend deep into the summer, larger staffs for the top lawmakers running the legislature have also become the norm.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore counted over a dozen workers in each of their offices at the start of this year’s session. The salaries of the taxpayer-funded employees assigned to the two offices exceed $2 million, according to personnel data provided to The Associated Press. Seven workers are paid at least $100,000 each.

Non-partisan research workers at the legislative complex have provided assistance to all lawmakers since the 1970s. Forty years ago, the speaker’s staff was usually comprised of a single legislative assistant.

But so-called “partisan” staffs specifically assigned to help chamber leaders with governing have grown slowly in recent decades, starting under Democratic leadership. Republicans who took charge of state government in 2011 pledged to trim staff salary expenses, with some success. The number of permanent staff workers however, has remained the same or grown a little since then.

These staff employees provide advice on legal matters, manage appointments to state commissions and communicate with the public and the media on the Republican agenda. They also provide research and guidance to Republicans on issues like health care, education and energy exploration.

The General Assembly has gotten “more complicated over the past 20 years or so,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said this week. While the use of non-partisan staff should be maximized, he added, “I think there are from time to time issues that it’s important for us to have folks that are aligned with the majority in the General Assembly.”

Although the General Assembly is still a part-time legislature, the speaker and Senate leader basically have become full-time posts at a time when the state has grown.

“They’re spending more and more time in Raleigh, and therefore feel the need to be involved in more issues,” said Jim Johnson, former director of the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.

Today, Berger’s staff is comprised of 15 workers making combined annual salaries of $1.04 million, according to a list provided by the legislature’s Financial Services Office. Berger, now in his third term as Senate leader, had the same number of employees when last year’s budget-adjustment session began in May, with combined salaries of nearly $1.1 million.

“Most of our staff members could make considerably more money in the private sector but choose to work here because they believe in what Sen. Berger and the Senate caucus are doing for the state,” Berger Chief of Staff Jim Blaine said by email.

Moore, R-Cleveland, elected speaker for the first time last month, has 13 employees with annual salaries of nearly $977,000. Last May, outgoing Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, had 11 employees totaling $839,000 in salaries, personnel data show. Tillis’ staff salaries exceeded $1 million during his first term as speaker in 2011, but he reduced the amount after the session ended later that year.

Moore’s staffing decisions reflect his plans to offer more assistance to members and to work more closely with committees and their chairmen, spokeswoman Mollie Young said. “Every speaker has had a different structure and management style - Speaker Moore is no different,” Young wrote in an email.

Figures don’t include the $38,151 salaries Berger and Moore receive.

Harold Brubaker, the Republican House speaker from 1995 through 1998, said he recalls having six or seven full-time workers. Nine-term Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, had nine permanent workers in 2004, growing to 11 in 2009, according to documents.

Brubaker said legislative leaders need partisan staff to consider political implications of policy decisions. But 13-term Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, is wary of the increased use of partisan staff over time because he said it creates more partisanship in developing legislation.

“Partisan staff members tilt the argument in a way that doesn’t serve us well as legislators,” he said.

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