A group of legislators from the North Carolina General Assembly filed a bill Wednesday to increase their daily stipend while in session — a number which has not been raised for over 20 years.
House Bill 71, sponsored by a group of bipartisan representatives, proposes increases to both legislator’s daily expense allowance while in session and their per-mile travel allowance when driving to Raleigh from various parts of the state.
Daily legislative stipends and mileage reimbursements haven’t increased since 1993, as they have for other federal employees. If passed, the bill would raise meal and lodging stipends to the 2017 maximum daily allowance for federal employees on official travel, determined each fiscal year.
Co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, said, because of constitutional limitations, the bill wouldn’t go into effect until 2019.
“We can’t raise the amount for ourselves, for legislators in session,” she said. “Only those who are elected in 2019 will get (the pay increase).”
Hurley said the bill was proposed after the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee recommended the pay changes.
“It’s been 24 years already since anything has been done and it will be two more years until anything is done, so it will have been 26 years,” she said. “We thought it was time to look at it and see if it could be done.”
MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, said in an email she hopes legislators' willingness to raise their own pay means they are also willing to raise the state’s minimum wage.
“It's time for (North Carolina) to join the 29 other states who have raised their wages because the current wage of $7.25 an hour is a poverty wage,” she said.
But Hurley said raising the minimum wage and increasing legislator pay were not related.
“The only reason we’re (sponsoring the bill) is because there was a study and our (legislative stipend) hasn’t gone up in 24 years,” she said. “It has nothing to do with raising the minimum wage, absolutely not.”
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Durham said increasing legislative pay more broadly can make public service more accessible.
“The low legislative pay that we have in North Carolina prevents a lot of working class people from being able to run for office,” he said. “But I haven’t heard an explanation of why the sponsors think (a stipend increase) is the best way to deal with the challenge of legislative pay.”
Meyer said it is a common misconception to assume state legislators make six figure salaries.
"But the truth is, in North Carolina, we're paid a very low basic rate and then some subsistence on top of that," he said. "It's certainly not enough to have a family on."
Members of the part-time General Assembly without recognized leadership positions receive an annual salary of just under $14,000 and a monthly expense allowance of $559. Hurley said the daily expense increase won’t combat the overall low pay.
“It certainly can’t hurt, but it’s not enough extra money to make a difference if (the legislators) have a job or a family,” she said.
McMillan said ideally, the legislature would be a full-time job, as opposed to a part-time position that is supplemented by outside income.
“Not many working people have jobs that would allow them to take off for three, six, or eight months to serve in the legislature,” she said. “…If average citizens were able to serve in the legislature, I believe our policies would be more favorable to working people.”
Meyer said it is hard to identify the best pay system without deciding whether the General Assembly should become a full-time legislature.
“Our pay discussion should be tied with the discussion about whether we need a full-time legislature like many of the other larger states in the country,” he said. “And if we are to have a full-time legislature, then we need to have full-time wages.”
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