North Carolina’s ‘part-time’ legislature has been in session for over a year. It matters.

·5 min read

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As we approach the end of the 13th month in a row that North Carolina’s “part-time” state legislature has been in session, it’s tempting to wonder if even politicians might need some labor protections to get a break.

The state’s lawmakers — some of them, at least — made it to Raleigh yet again this week to vote on delaying the 2022 primary elections. It was a politically divisive decision highlighted by some confusion surrounding parts of the bill itself, plus a general lack of debate, in part because there were a whole lot fewer lawmakers there than normal to do the talking.

All told, it took just a few hours. The bill was introduced at 11 a.m. and had made it through committees then both the full House and Senate, to be sent on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, before 4 p.m. No members of the public showed up to speak, nor did a decent number of state legislators.

The House of Representatives had plenty of empty seats when they voted Wednesday. But members can vote remotely due to COVID-19 safety concerns, so 119 of its 120 members did cast a vote. Some of them did so from home or work, without being able to ask questions or make statements before they voted.

The Senate does not allow remote voting, however, and seven of the 50 state senators didn’t vote. That may not seem like much. But 14% of the Senate absent means that well over a million North Carolinians weren’t represented as a pretty big decision was made.

(Here is where I note that this process was at least more transparent than when the N.C. Supreme Court changed the date of the primary election a month ago, which the legislature is now trying to change again. The court won’t say how its justices voted on that decision, despite requests for that information from yours truly and others.)

All of this isn’t to take a stance on the bill itself. Politicians on both sides made their arguments, as you probably read in The News & Observer already — and if not, you can find it here to make up your mind on the merits.

But as you do read that article, also ask yourself if it’s good governance in general for the state to be making major changes using a sped-up process, with little advance notice, and a decent number of lawmakers not even in the building.

Is there a fix?

North Carolina has a large rural population (the second-biggest in the nation behind Texas) and plenty of people living several hours away from Raleigh. For years lawmakers have complained about the drive into work. And it can be a toll on politicians from the far edges of the state.

This year the entire Asheville-area delegation in the House is retiring rather than run for reelection — Democrats Susan Fisher, John Ager and Brian Turner. Turner explicitly said his decision was due to the increasingly lengthy sessions that kept him away from home, calling it “unsustainable.”

Let’s take a brief reality check: It is hard to think of politicians as the victims here. They signed up for this, after all.

And to be fair, they haven’t worked straight through, with time off here and there, like a break in the summer and again over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Who knows if there’s any appetite for creating a full-time legislature, which would surely be branded as a bunch of “professional politicians.” Nationwide only 10 states have some form of full-time legislature.

But North Carolina seems to be in a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. The National Conference of State Legislatures says we’re in a “gray zone” where lawmakers report spending more than two-thirds of their time on legislative matters, but still get paid like it’s only a minor time commitment that doesn’t interfere with their ability to have a real job. North Carolina pays most lawmakers less than $14,000 a year, plus a per-diem of $104 a day when they’re in session — which only some lawmakers get, which hasn’t been raised in years, and which has led to some recent ethics questions.

There has been some talk of raising their pay; it never goes anywhere. I wrote about a bill to do that in 2017 that quickly sputtered out, since most think that voting to raise their own pay would amount to political suicide. That’s a fair concern — and maybe a sign that most voters haven’t read the Duke University study that found higher legislative salaries correspond to more competitive elections and politicians who are more active and more responsive.

OTHER STORIES FROM THE TEAM

“NC’s Thom Tillis threatens to resign from Senate if Republicans ever change the filibuster” — by Danielle Battaglia, who notes that Tillis didn’t resign when Republicans changed the filibuster in 2017, to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

“Warrants outline evidence linking man to 2012 killing of UNC student Faith Hedgepeth” — The N&O’s Virginia Bridges got previously sealed court documents that shed more light on how police finally found a suspect in the decade-old case.

WHAT WE’RE READING

“Biden insists U.S. won’t accept ‘minor incursion’ by Russia into Ukraine” — by The Washington Post. We got out of Afghanistan, America’s longest-ever war, in August. Could we soon be in a different war?

“Why Longstreet is being renamed on Fort Bragg” — by The Fayetteville Observer. Anyone remotely familiar with Civil War history will know why without clicking on the article. But it raises a bigger, and still unanswered, question: As the Biden administration works to remove Confederate names from military bases, what will Fort Bragg itself be renamed? U.S. Army leaders plan to send ideas to Congress later this year.

Thanks for reading. See you next week. And in the meantime, tune into our stories, tweets and podcasts for more developments.

— By Will Doran, reporter for The News & Observer. Email me at wdoran@newsobserver.com.

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