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State legislators want higher pay to handle financial stress of the job

Are North Carolina state legislators underpaid? They say they are, and they want a raise. 

In a bill initially co-sponsored by one Democratic and three Republican senators, legislators are asking to be paid $60 more per day when the General Assembly is in session. If the bill passes, the changes would take effect in 2019 and primarily change stipends for mileage, food and lodging. Mike Woodard, a state senator from Durham County and business analyst at Duke, agreed that pay raises could be necessary.

"My colleagues have to have hotel rooms, rent apartments or basically displace themselves three to four days a week from their family and jobs, so there is a significant cost to serving in the legislature," he said. "Even for me, just going home at night, I barely cover the cost as well. Anything that would make it less of a burden for people to serve is a good thing.”

State legislators currently earn a $104 meal and lodging stipend per day, which the bill would increase to a $164 stipend. The bill would also allow legislators to be reimbursed 57.5 cents per mile, compared to the 28 cents-per-mile standard in place now. In addition to their stipends, North Carolina state legislators currently receive an annual $13,951 salary—although there are differences based on leadership roles within the General Assembly. 

The funding system is based on 1993 rules, which have not been updated since then. Not surprisingly, proposals to increase pay are common. 

“It comes up every session," Woodard said. "There are bills or proposals almost every session that recommend increased pay or increased per diem,” Woodard said. “This is nothing new.”

Although boosting pay might help legislators financially, a recent study suggests it might not do much to change the composition of the General Assembly itself. In a study co-authored by Nicholas Carnes, assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, states with higher legislative pay failed to entice more blue-collar workers to join government. 

Legislators have a good case, said Mac McCorkle, associate professor of the practice at Sanford. But the bill might face opposition given potential dissatisfaction with the way North Carolina is being run. McCorkle suggested the bill might not even pass the legislature and that if it did, Governor Roy Cooper would give it a close examination. 

“[The stipend] has not been raised to keep up with inflation for a long time. In the abstract, it looks like they have a pretty good case," McCorkle said.  "The problem is the political context of the legislature being at such a low ebb in public trust and confidence and all the negative polarizing things that are going on.”

A general lack of bipartisan agreement in the legislature, along with tension between the two major parties, may lead constituents to speak out against the bill. However, the bill could attract bipartisan support within the legislature, Woodard explained, especially for legislators whose role in politics is their full-time job. 

“Some legislators are full time legislators, so when you run to serve in the state legislature, many legislators give up their profession to do this full time," he said. "It is always an issue when it is a part-time legislature because rarely is it a part-time job."


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