RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina lawmakers back in Raleigh on Wednesday discussed potential session limits and the touchy subject of raising legislator pay, just three weeks after their marathon annual session ended.
Members of the General Assembly’s government watchdog committee heard a presentation from experts at the National Conference of State Legislatures. They provided information about which states cap how long their lawmakers meet, how much legislators elsewhere make and the use of technology to hold remote meetings.
Session lengths are foremost on the minds of many North Carolina lawmakers. The General Assembly adjourned for the year Sept. 30, or 8½ months after they first gaveled in the session, marking their longest annual work period since 2001. Traditionally, the legislature aims to leave sometime in July.
With the primary moved up next year from May to March, lawmakers must decide by Dec. 21 whether or not to be a candidate for the 2017-18 session. Several incumbents have already announced they’re not running.
North Carolina is one of 11 states that don’t have formal restrictions on how long legislative bodies meet, according to NCSL data presented to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee. Most of the others set limits through their constitutions, state law or chamber rules.
Lengthy sessions or oversight committee meetings after they’re adjourned don’t change the base pay for rank-and-file House and Senate members. State law directs they earn $13,951 annually - an amount that hasn’t been changed since 1995. The House speaker, Senate leader and other chamber leaders earn more.
Lawmakers have been wary of introducing bills to address salaries in part for fear of it being used against them in campaigns.
“You certainly don’t want to bring up or mention giving ourselves any kind of pay raise,” said eight-term Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, who isn’t seeking re-election.
North Carolina ranks near the low end of the pay scale for legislators nationwide, said Laura Rose, NCSL’s legislative management director. Comparisons with other states can be difficult when total compensation is calculated. Salaries don’t include $104 per day for living expenses while working in Raleigh and mileage reimbursements.
Still, Rose said, lower legislative salaries combined with high legislative demands “may foreclose legislative service from persons who need to earn enough to support a family.”
Despite the historical growth with the number of female and black lawmakers in the General Assembly, there’s still a perception that “the only people that can serve in the North Carolina legislature are basically old, rich, white guys,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg.
The NCSL presentation suggested North Carolina - now the nation’s ninth largest state - must decide if it wanted to shift to a “professionalized” legislature, which can be marked by higher pay and expected longer work periods. That decision could be based on the expectations of constituents and how the state values the legislative process, according to Rose.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, said a subcommittee would be formed to do more research on the issues. The full committee could make recommendations to the General Assembly, which reconvenes next April.
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