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Tab rising on N.C. legislative session

By Annalise Frank
afrank@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH Another day, another $50,000. That’s what lawmakers’ decision to stay another day in Raleigh costs the state.

Wesley Taylor, the General Assembly’s financial services controller, expects the current session will end up costing about $30 million.

Lawmakers had hoped to be out by July – House Speaker Thom Tillis had even suggested May at one point earlier this year. But wrangling over taxes, the budget, voter ID, abortion and other issues has kept them there long past their due date.

Taxpayers have noticed.

Taylor has been fielding calls since the end of June. “Everybody has to ask: ‘How much does it cost the state?’ ” Taylor said.

He tells them $50,000 a day, which pays for salaries, coffee, air conditioning, legislators’ per diem and more.

Between sessions, the state still has to pay to keep the Legislative Building running.

But that cost is a fraction of what’s needed during session. Reimbursements and salaries for lawmakers, as well as bigger salaries for staffers – who get paid part-time between sessions but full-time during – make up about 90 percent of expenditures, Taylor said.

Lawmakers get $104 per day while in session, in addition to their yearly salaries and reimbursements for driving.

Those salaries, by the way, are $13,951 for rank-and-file members. The House speaker and Senate president make $38,151 a year.

The Speaker pro tempore of the House and the Senate’s deputy president earn $21,739, and the minority and majority leaders of the House and Senate each make $17,048.

The price of making policy has risen in recent years, because of last year’s 1.2-percent salary increase for staff and raises in health insurance and retirement benefits, Taylor said. “But other than that, I don’t expect to see any other increases.”

Last session was shorter

Last session, it should be noted, ended on June 18, 2012. Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger had come in promising efficiency, and delivered.

The 2009 session, which ended in mid-August, cost $37 million, Taylor said.

When a session goes on too long, lawmakers have been known to waive their per diem payments. Many did in 2001, when the session stretched from January to Dec. 6 as lawmakers tried to reach an agreement on redistricting.

During that session, more than a week of skeleton sessions were held, Taylor said.

These empty sessions are necessary because legislators need to meet at least every fourth day by law. But they aren’t required to come in and work.

Legislators are more likely to decline their per diem during a skeleton session or when they have to miss a day.

One legislator’s take

Rep. Verla Insko, who has served nine terms, said she has waived her daily pay at times over the years but doesn’t see a need to this year. The session hasn’t been that long, and the Chapel Hill Democrat said public service shouldn’t have to come out of lawmakers’ pockets.

Most legislators aren’t wealthy, she said. With a per diem her salary comes to between $30,000 and $35,000 per year, Insko said.

“I don’t think it makes you a better legislator or a more moral legislator” to waive per diem payments, she said.

Frank: 919-829-4870
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