If there were one theme that defined North Carolina’s legislature this decade it would be that they are a body of reformers. Lawmakers have reformed elections, taxes, education, healthcare, the courts and state government — and those are just the ones that come to mind.
Too often these reforms result in costly lawsuits and our legislators don’t have a good win-loss record. It’s not that courts are packed with Democrats, as some maintain. The truth is that too many decisions are quickly made behind closed doors with too little consideration given to potential unintended consequences and there is no attempt to seek consensus or compromise.
For this, and other reasons, our General Assembly needs to reform the one area they have conspicuously ignored — their own structure and process.
Sitting in the galleries above either chamber one quickly realizes that the legislature isn’t a representative sampling of our state. Our legislature is largely old, white, male and either retired or wealthy. The working class can neither afford to run nor take the required time away from their livelihoods. Current leadership has strived to keep both the long and short sessions from running interminably long, but they have failed to control the growing number of called special sessions and, when not in session, committee meetings that require many to be in Raleigh several times a month. Our state pays the price when potentially good candidates are unable to make the sacrifice. We need better discipline regarding the time required to serve.
Speaking of price, we don’t pay legislators adequately. If we want better legislators we need to pay them better. Each legislator receives compensation of $13,951 per year, plus an expense allowance of $559 per month and per diem expenses when in Raleigh, averaging around $89 a night for room and $51 per day for meals. In exchange for fairer compensation, we would do away with the legislative retirement plan. If we truly have a part-time legislature, we should not be socking money into a retirement plan that rewards lawmakers based on how many years they serve.
Term limits are also needed. Too many serve too long. We would suggest leadership serve no more than 8 years and all legislators be restricted to 12 years. Fresh blood will have fresh solutions to problems.
Another needed reform is to change the length of a legislator’s term from two to four years. When lawmakers constantly have to seek re-election they have to be constantly raising money. To win a seat in our legislature costs a minimum of $100,000, and when you have to raise that amount every two years, you go where the contribution money is — mostly lobbyists and PAC groups, who either want to pass or to block legislation from passing.
No reform is more badly needed than redistricting. It is incontrovertible that lawmakers currently choose voters, not the other way around. If we want competitive elections with good candidates, North Carolina must rid itself of gerrymandering by establishing an independent redistricting commission. Why would anyone want to run in a contest where the outcome is essentially already determined? This one change could easily make our legislature more accountable and more effective.
Finally, we need to reform the legislative process itself and return to times when the budget was fully heard and debated in sub-committee meetings, then taken to the respective revenue or finance committees for further discussion and debate before coming to the floor for final debate and a vote.
We’ve made the case and suggested solutions. Legislature, reform thyself.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.