RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – After a historically long legislative session wrapped up this week, state lawmakers agreed changes need to be made to how the General Assembly functions but disagreed on what those changes should be.
For the first time, the legislature’s long session carried over into a second calendar year having begun in January 2021 and concluding this Thursday.
“Session was absolutely too long,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). “I was not willing for us to adjourn this session without a budget. I was not willing to do that. And, it took a while to get the Governor where he would sign it.”
Legislators passed a bipartisan budget agreement in November and remained in session after that as lawsuits over the new electoral districts moved through the court system.
“I don’t know of a business that can operate the way the North Carolina General Assembly operates. And, so, I’ve personally been very disappointed the leadership of the Republican Party has shown in how they run the General Assembly,” said Rep. James Gailliard (D-Nash County).
The legislature is part-time, and rank-and-file members receive a salary of just under $14,000 per year plus a $104 daily payment for meals and lodging when in Raleigh. The Associated Press reported the House gaveled in for 198 daily floor sessions while the Senate met for 196 days.
“I think everybody would like to see sessions shorter than they are,” said Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, describing the General Assembly as “a part-time legislature in thought but not in reality.”
Leaders of both parties said the time commitment and low pay contributed to challenges in recruiting people to run for the legislature in this year’s election. Twenty percent of seats in the General Assembly are uncontested this year.
Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) announced last year he wouldn’t seek re-election, describing service in the legislature as “unsustainable.”
Rep. Gailliard said he thinks there should be a definitive stop date for session. Typically, the long session ends by June 30, but there is no requirement for that to happen. There have been other long sessions in recent years that have stretched past that date.
“We need to go in. We need to have a hard stop. We need to do what we need to do to get the work done so people can get back to their families and back to the district,” he said.
But, Speaker Moore and Sen. Berger questioned that approach, saying they’re not sure they would have reached an agreement with Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Democratic legislative leaders on the budget.
“I don’t know that if we had an artificial stop date that we would have gotten to the same place or not,” Berger said. “I do know that what we’re doing now is way less than optimal.”
Rep. Gailliard said if Republicans are unwilling to make that change, then he would support converting the General Assembly to a full-time legislature. Ten other states have full-time legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“If we’re not going to do that, we need to change the configuration of the General Assembly to make it a full-time job,” he said. “Unless you’re wealthy, unless you have a business that you can operate and you can create your own schedule or you’re retired, you cannot serve here. That is not fair to the ten-and-a-half million people that live here.”
He added, “For a person like me, I actually lose money to be here.”
Both Berger and Moore agreed that the current structure keeps a lot of people who may be interested in serving from being able to do that. But, they were skeptical of changing to a full-time legislature, with Moore saying it should remain a part-time position.
“It keeps members grounded. It keeps you at home and in touch with the folks that you represent. I think you could compare that to some full-time legislatures or to Congress where folks are just so far removed from what’s going on,” he said.
Moore added he would not support increasing the salary of legislators either.
Legislative leaders have scheduled the “short session” to begin May 18, the day after the primary election. There are a few days between now and then that they have set aside to take votes if something unforeseen arises, but they say the intention is not to have any business on those days.
Moore and Berger said they believe the short session will be shorter than usual, citing the bipartisan agreement reached last fall on the two-year budget.