Do N.C. legislators deserve a pay raise?

State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, chairs a committee that considered a raise in legislators’ compensation.
State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, chairs a committee that considered a raise in legislators’ compensation. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Should N.C. legislators be paid more? Or less?

Competing proposals sit before the General Assembly at a time when politicians in general, and N.C. legislators in particular, are especially unpopular. There are strong cases to be made on each side.

A legislative committee on Monday approved a proposal that would boost lawmakers’ per diems from $104 to $163 while they are in session, and would increase travel reimbursement from 29 cents to 54 cents a mile. The plan would increase a legislator’s daily expense budget by $413 a week. For a Charlotte representative, it would increase mileage reimbursement by about $90 per week. Base pay – $13,951 a year for rank-and-file legislators – would not change. In a six-month session, typical legislators from Charlotte would make about $13,000 more than they do now, or nearly double.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, said the proposal would cost the state about $1.4 million a year, the Insider news service reported.

At the same time, two House Republicans on Tuesday filed a bill that could cut pay by limiting the number of weeks that per diems are paid. Now they are paid whenever legislators are in session. The bill from Reps. Rick Catlin and Charles Jeter would pay the per diem for 22 weeks during long sessions (in odd-numbered years) and for eight weeks during short sessions (even-numbered years). If that policy had been in place last year, when the session dragged on until Sept. 30, it would have cost legislators some $9,000 each.

On the one hand, legislator per diems and mileage have been the same for more than 20 years. The low pay makes it difficult for many qualified people to serve in the legislature. If you’re not independently wealthy, retired or have an unusually flexible job, serving can be financially impossible.

Hartsell notes that legislator compensation has not kept up with inflation. Of course, neither has North Carolina’s $7.25 per hour minimum wage, but we don’t hear legislators citing that as a reason to raise it. And it’s hard to justify a pay raise for legislators when so many of them are performing their jobs so poorly and public employees who truly are crucial – such as teachers – rank near the bottom nationally in pay.

The proposal to limit per diems to 22 and eight weeks would surely prompt legislative leaders to be more efficient with their time. Lawmakers collected their per diem as last year’s session ran three months into the new fiscal year. If it had been cut off, we imagine legislators would have managed to come to agreements more quickly.

Regardless, if legislators are to give themselves a pay raise, it probably won’t be in an election year. That’s when teachers get theirs. – Taylor Batten