This article originally appeared in the Lincoln Tribune on June 6, 2009
The news of Rep. Bonner Stiller’s (R-Brunswick) pending resignation from the NC House of Representatives should be seen as a renewed call for a limit on legislative sessions. Stiller cited the time commitments of the General Assembly, keeping him away from his family and his job at his Southport law firm as the primary reasons he is leaving.
The seemingly increasing time demands of serving in the Legislature is making it additionally difficult on members to have a life, be it personal or professional, outside of Raleigh. And the indeterminate length of the legislative session is making it more and more difficult for members to serve.
Unfortunately, Rep. Stiller is not the first member to leave and will surely not be the last. But his sudden resignation shows that this is a definite problem that must be addressed. Throughout the past couple of years, Rep. Charles Thomas (R-Buncombe) and Rep. Doug Vinson (R-Mecklenburg) have both departed due to the same situation as Rep. Stiller’s – trying to balance a career, family and service in the General Assembly.
Could you imagine being in their shoes? Imagine going to your employer and telling them you need an unspecified amount of time off from January until sometime in the summer, or maybe the fall, because you don’t really know when the state budget will pass. And, that you’ll be leaving early on Mondays to get to session and won’t be back until Friday? How many employers would be accommodating to such an open-ended commitment? I would guess very few.
A recent report from the NC Center for Public Policy Research revealed that the number of members aged 65 and up in the General Assembly continues to grow. They now comprise 27 percent of the Legislature, up from 22 percent in 1989. While there is something to be said about having wise elders in government, the growing trend of the aging of the General Assembly must be disconcerting.
The General Assembly is quickly becoming a body of retirees, government employees and people independently wealthy. The days of the farmer or business owner coming to Raleigh to serve is quickly dying. And with that, those voices of rugged independence, and freedom from government, is being lost with it. Should it be any surprise that there is a correlation between the rise of government power in Raleigh and the decline in the number of small business owners in the General Assembly?
The lengthening sessions and time commitments are making it increasingly harder for members to have outside full-time employment and still serve in what is considered a “part-time” Legislature.
So what is the solution? Many will point to the low pay (roughly $13,000, plus travel and per diem) as a barrier to attract people to serve. But do we really want member’s sole income being drawn from their ability to get them re-elected? What type of message does that send?
While there is certainly an argument to be made that members should be adequately compensated for their time spent serving, perhaps reducing the time commitment would provide a better answer.
A large majority of other states place limits on the number of days the Legislature can be in session. Our neighbors in Virginia, for instance, meet for 60 days one year and 30 days the next. Other states have similar limits. How is it they seem to get all their work done and budgets passed in a short time frame, yet our General Assembly goes on indefinitely?
Adopting session limits will prove beneficial for North Carolina. Not only will it allow more “regular” folks to serve, but it also will potentially save the state millions of dollars as each week of session costs roughly $250,000 in addition to staff time, printing and member per diems.
The NC Senate has already taken one step down this road by passing SB15, which would limit members’ per diem to 135 days in the long session and 60 days in the short session. By limiting the reimbursements for members, the thought is that if you cut off their financial incentive to stick around Raleigh, they will be more encouraged to wrap up session in a timely manner. While this would not prevent the Legislature from meeting longer, it would certainly give members an impetus to get things done sooner.
House leadership has indicated that they are not in support of this proposal. I wonder how many more of its members will have to resign to change their minds.