Raising lawmakers’ pay might bring more candidates

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Some lawmakers think they’re paid too little, and they’re right.

Lawmakers who often spend several months a year in Raleigh working for the public — and away from their jobs at home if they’re not retired — make only $13,591 a year as an elected official. It hasn’t risen since the pay was set in 1993.

Rep. Gary Pendleton, R-Wake, wants to change that. He’d like to raise base pay for lawmakers to $20,000 a year plus $104 a day for expenses — the current per diem rate.

He also wants to limit legislative sessions to 90 days in odd numbered years when biennial budgets are passed, and 45 days in even years during “short” sessions. In addition, he wants to study increasing legislative terms from two years to four years. 
We’re not quite ready to lengthen lawmakers’ terms or put those specific limits on legislative sessions — at least not yet — but we’re onboard with hiking the pay of legislators.

Our local state representative, Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan also agrees, and for the right reasons.

“It costs money to serve in the General Assembly,” he recently said, adding that lawmakers’ current pay “does exclude a certain segment from running for office.”

A higher salary, he said, would allow working-age people elected to public office to leave their jobs if needed and still support themselves and their families.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said the current low pay is a deterrent. “Young, bright and maybe not-so-young bright people ... can’t afford to do this,” he recently said.

While public service should be the primary interest in serving in the legislature, we would agree that the pay is too low to support that ideal. In fact, it should be higher than the $20,000 Pendleton is seeking. After all, these are the folks who decide how to divvy up a $21 billion annual budget.

How often have you heard someone say that a person would be a good lawmaker, but could never afford to do it? Or say, no wonder people don’t want to run for office anymore.

If the pay were commensurate with what one could make at home, then more good people might be willing to run for office. As it is, only those who are fairly well off, or who can take the time off or who are retired can afford to serve.

Further, we also believe that public financing of campaigns would give candidates and lawmakers more time to accomplish goals without having to run around begging for money from wealthy contributors, some of whom believe they can buy elections.

North Carolina ranks near the bottom in legislative pay nationwide. Legislators in Texas earn the lowest salary, at $7,200 per year. California lawmakers earn the most, having recently raised their pay 3 percent from $97,197 per year to $100,112.

New Yorkers get $79,500 a year, Ohioans $60,584. In Pennsylvania, they get $85,338 a year, and in Illinois, $67,836. All are among the nine states with legislatures considered full-time.

North Carolina — which only recently wrapped up its lengthy budget-year session that started in January — is among states whose legislators devote 70 percent of a full-time job to their legislative duties. Others in that category include Connecticut, Maryland, Nebraska and South Carolina — 23 in all. The average salary per legislator in those states is $35,326.

As you can see, at $13,951, North Carolina has a lot of catching up to do. So Pendleton’s proposal to raise it to $20,000 is certainly justified and in fact, in our view, a little low. Nevertheless, an increase is needed to convince more people to run.

Pendleton should also push to restore public financing of candidates, to level the playing field so that issues — and not money — determine election outcomes.

Public service should remain the primary reason why citizens runs for office, and that does not preclude the wealthy from seeing office. However, the current low compensation is deterring many qualified and potentially successful candidates from serving. That hurts our state by leaving the reigns of government in the hands of those primarily who have established wealth. North Carolina needs citizens from many walks, interests and income levels to produce our policies and laws. Raising the pay for lawmakers will help make that happen.