Whew. In case you hadn’t noticed, the General Assembly finally adjourned its 2019 session, more or less.
And if you didn’t notice, that’s probably because the state legislators spent a lot of time in this so-called long session getting very little done, so at times it seemed as if they had already called it quits. In fact, they seem to have given up and gone home more because they got tired of their endless thumb-twiddling, insult-exchanging and game-playing than because they finished the business that supposedly brought them to Raleigh. Oh, and after they went home, they had to come back to vote on redistricting legislation, but they had agreed not to take up most other matters then. They plan to be back in January to try again.
The list of things they didn’t get done is a lot more substantive than a tally of their accomplishments. They didn’t pass a state budget. They didn’t vote on raises for public school teachers. They didn’t do anything about expanding Medicaid to cover more North Carolinians who have trouble affording health insurance.
In June, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Republicans’ two-year budget bill because, among other problems, it didn’t adequately address teacher pay increases or Medicaid expansion but did offer more corporate income-tax cuts. Now that the GOP no longer has a supermajority in the legislature, a veto is supposed to lead to some substantive negotiations and reasonable compromise. But Republican leaders held out in hopes they could manage a veto override, resulting in many weeks when the legislature accomplished little. By resorting to trickery, they did manage to get an override vote through the House, but Senate Democrats held firm.
Legislators did pass some “mini-budget” bills by breaking them out of the larger proposed budget, and Cooper signed most of those into law. But that’s not a lot to justify a session that stretched over 11 months, the second longest in state history. So the taxpayers picked up the tab for this wheel-spinning, to the tune of an estimated $42,000 a day.
These marathon legislative sessions cost the state in other ways as well. They are taking a toll on the number of qualified, conscientious, civic-minded citizens who are willing to try serving in the General Assembly. For the record, North Carolina is officially one of the states that still has a part-time legislature made up of citizens who may have other jobs in places other than Raleigh. But in these days when sessions stretch out over most of the year, that part-time, citizen legislature is mostly a fiction. Holding down an outside job is tough, if not impossible.
Unfortunately, though, the pay for North Carolina legislators is still on that part-time scale. Unlike members of Congress, who are paid about $174,000 a year for what’s understood to be a full-time job, rank-and-file members of the General Assembly receive an annual salary of $13,951. They also get a stipend of $104 every day the legislature is in session, bringing the total to somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. All this means that it’s hard for anyone who isn’t rich or retired to be a state legislator.
What’s it going to be, North Carolina? Do we want to pay legislators enough to keep them in Raleigh all year, or do we want to tell them to stop wasting time?