Members of the North Carolina General Assembly make $13,951 per year, plus a $104 per diem while the legislature is in session.
Unchanged since 1995, this is a mere $1,071 above the federal poverty line for a single adult with no children.
I’ve been a public policy major for nearly four semesters now, and I was shocked to learn this a few weeks ago in professor William Goldsmith’s state and local politics class.
“Most scholars consider North Carolina middle of the pack compared with other states in its metrics of professionalization — salary and benefits, time demands of service, staff and resources,” Goldsmith said.
No matter how professional the N.C. legislature is, however, there simply isn’t enough fat in the state budget to increase pay for most state employees, especially legislators themselves, Goldsmith continued.
“Of course, Republicans who took control in 2010 exacerbated those fiscal restraints by cutting taxes, so this isn’t purely driven by state GDP.”
The insubstantial salary disproportionately affects some legislators more than others. Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, most likely sleeps in his Wake County home every night. Sen. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon, must make a five-hour trek each time he travels from the General Assembly to his home in Franklin.
Thus, most legislators must find temporary housing in or near Raleigh. Some legislators even camp on the nearby State Fairgrounds.
Coupled together, gas and housing prices further disadvantage certain state legislators.
The low pay and high cost of being a state legislator prevents any person who is not already wealthy from becoming a policymaker.
To be a legislator in North Carolina, you simply must have a coexisting, flexible job, come from a wealthy family or be retired. This makes our state legislature elite, white and elderly.
So how do we solve this problem?
Most obviously, we should raise the pay of legislators, which currently constitutes 0.3 percent of the state’s assembly administrative budget. There is one holdup to increasing this number: North Carolina voters simply don’t know that their legislators make less than $14,000 a year. Honestly, neither did I until two weeks ago.
“In December 2019, I surveyed a representative group of 525 registered voters in North Carolina,” Christopher Cooper wrote in The Assembly, an N.C. policy news source. "The average respondent believed that members of the North Carolina General Assembly make $124,705 a year—almost nine times their true salary."
We see it every year. Campaign ads say something along the lines of “they raised your taxes while they took a pay raise.” For state elections, this is just false information. If we are going to raise legislator pay, we’ve got to raise the public’s opinion about it first. I doubt a pay raise would pass in the General Assembly unless the salaries of other state employees were raised and the public knew exactly how much their representatives make.
If we’re able to give our legislators a pay raise, exactly how much should we pay them?
At least a living wage. Perhaps we pay them the same as the maintenance or security staff at the legislative building in Raleigh.
Maybe the reason that minimum wage in North Carolina is still $7.25 is because we pay our legislators about the same, and our inherently wealthy legislature is extremely disconnected from anyone living on minimum wage.
New Hampshire legislators make $100 per year, while California legislators make $114,877 per year. Legislator income varies widely. Because of the attention and expenses devoted to its state legislature, large states like California have been able to be laboratories of democracy and experiment with innovative bills.
If North Carolina wants to get out of its policy rut, it must pay its legislators enough to concentrate on legislation.
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