North Carolina’s top-paid legislator in 2009 earned 48 percent more than the average state government employee earned in the same year, and 54 percent more than the average private sector employee. The top-paid legislator was Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who collected $86,211.48. The top-paid legislators also hold the highest offices in the state General Assembly. Among the 25 legislators collecting the highest compensation in 2009, the vast majority were Democrats; only six were Republicans.
Legislators’ earnings come from four sources: salary, which varies based on a lawmaker’s position in the General Assembly; per diem, which is paid each day the lawmaker does legislative work; travel, including mileage reimbursement between Raleigh and lawmakers’ homes, along with other travel related to legislative business; and an expense account, which also is tied to individual lawmakers’ positions inside the General Assembly.
In North Carolina, legislative compensation is set by state statute. The highest a legislator can earn yearly is $38,151 and the lowest is $13,951.
Nationwide, California offers the highest annual pay to lawmakers – $95,291, plus a $173 per diem, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Following California is Michigan at $79,650; New York at $79,500; and Pennsylvania at $78,314.66.
Those rankings should be no surprise. Each of those states has a full-time legislature, defined by NCSL as one expecting members to spend at least 80 percent or more of the time doing legislative work that they would commit to a full-time job. Full-time legislatures also have substantial staff.
“Being a legislator doesn’t just mean attending legislative sessions and voting on proposed laws,” NCSL states. “State legislators also spend large amounts of time assisting constituents, studying state issues during the interim, and campaigning for election. These activities go on throughout the year. Any assessment of the time requirements of the job should include all of these elements of legislative life.”
The North Carolina General Assembly is considered neither full time nor part time. It falls somewhere in the middle, with members spending about two-thirds of the time required for a full-time job on legislative tasks. Between the long and short sessions, legislators work roughly 15 months out of their two-year terms. They are paid between $27,900 and $76,302 over that time.
Each state sets its own rates for lawmakers’ expenses. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island do not pay their legislators per diem. Other states offer daily compensation, such as Utah – a part-time legislature – where legislators are paid $117 a day. Utah pays $106 a day for expenses and lodging for each in-session calendar day, and $61 a day for meals. New Mexico doesn’t pay a salary to its legislators, instead providing a $159 daily per diem.
The North Carolina Constitution prohibits lawmakers from raising their own pay while they are in office. The last time North Carolina legislators received a pay raise was in 1995. Legislators broached the subject during the 2007 session. Sen. Katie Dorsett, D-Guilford, was primary sponsor of Senate Bill 2031, requesting a 7-percent pay raise.
The measure passed 100-6, and would have created a 21-member commission to recommend salaries, mileage reimbursement rates, and expense payments for all legislators every two years.
As The Associated Press reported in September 2008, “The recommendations of the panel – a majority of its members would be chosen at random through voter rolls – wouldn’t have taken effect unless approved by legislators. The bill failed to go anywhere in the Senate.”
North Carolina had to close a budget gap of more than 20 percent in fiscal year 2009-10, and anticipates a 30 percent budget gap in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina government employees earned $44,158 and private sector employees earned $39,350 in 2009.
Earlier this year, members of Congress passed legislation blocking an automatic cost-of-living escalator that would have raised the annual salaries of House and Senate members by $1,600. It marked the second straight year Congress has voted down a scheduled pay increase.
For a complete list of legislative disbursements, visit www.carolinatransparency.com/disbursements/.