Getting What We Pay For
How North Carolina’s legacy of a “citizen legislature” endures, with far-reaching effects on the state and its General Assembly // art by Rob Dobi
I want to tell you about a job. Do it right and you could help reduce poverty, increase life expectancy, make our roads safer, and improve our schools. Interested? There are a few catches.
The first is the salary—the job pays $13,951 a year, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1995. You’ll receive a small stipend for every day you work, but that stipend won’t be enough to pay for a place to stay unless you prefer motels that end in the number six. Some of your colleagues cope by camping at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds on workdays.
The number of days you work will be unpredictable. Normally, you’ll work January through August. But maybe through October. Or perhaps only until July. Your schedule changes every other year, but sometimes the year that’s expected to be shorter ends up being the longer one. Also, the boss in another division can call you back whenever he likes.
Staff support? You won’t have a lot of it. You will have an assistant, and from time to time, floating staff in the office will offer some help. But the current management team just fired 14 highly educated staffers who were supposed to help you with the more wonky aspects of the job.
Interested in the position? Congratulations! You can now raise money from your friends, campaign for over a year, and potentially serve as a member of the North Carolina General Assembly.
That’s the current recruitment pitch to fill the most powerful branch of government in a state with more than 10 million residents. It’s a model that was designed in a different century and different era, and it no longer serves our state or its citizens; it’s time for a change.
For political scientists, “professionalism” in state legislatures doesn’t mean decorum and polish. Instead, professionalism is increased when a state pays its legislators more money, stays in session longer, and provides more staff. The assumption is that those resources will produce a legislative body composed of people who consider service in the legislature as their primary occupation.
The North Carolina General Assembly governs the 9th most populous state in the nation, but ranks as only the 21st most professional legislature. We’re considered more professional than New Hampshire, a state that pays its legislators a paltry $100 a year and is in session for just 30 days every other year, but far less professional than similar-sized states like Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, which provide compensation and resources that are closer to what one might expect from a professional occupation.
The low professionalism model, often called the “citizen legislature” model, developed in the early 1900s when the role of state government was more limited and many legislators held down farms in their home districts. By the 1930s, however, some political observers began to worry about the negative consequences of low pay and low professionalism. A 1931 article in the New York Times, for example, argued that “competence demands a competency.”
North Carolinians have wrestled with the question of legislative compensation for decades. In 1948, voters considered a constitutional amendment to increase the salary of General Assembly members from $600 per regular session and $8 a day for extra sessions to $1,200 a session and $250 for each extra session.
In the now-defunct Charlotte News, Albert Coates, the founder of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government, cited the rising cost of living and argued that low pay would lead to less qualified candidates and increased power for well-resourced special interests. This view ultimately fell short with the public, and the measure was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent.
Today, the logic for a less professional legislature rests on the idea that legislators should understand what it’s like to be one of us: Legislators shouldn’t trade the daily toil of the average citizen for the high life in the state Capitol. One might argue that low pay creates an incentive for legislators to reject overly long legislative sessions—to spend more time at home where they, theoretically, have a job that pays the bills. But in reality, it just weakens the system.
Consider how the current setup limits who can serve. It is impossible for vast swathes of the citizenry to take a low-paying job with few resources, requiring you to be away from your primary source of income for an unknown number of days each year. The system skews toward lawyers, retirees, business owners, investors—folks with comfortable incomes, flexible schedules, and the ability to take extended and sudden leaves of absence.
The hardship is greater the farther you live from Raleigh. It’s one thing to run back and forth to the General Assembly if you’re Wiley Nickel and you represent the Senate district in Wake County. It’s entirely another for Senate district 50’s Kevin Corbin to make the five-hour trek from his home in Macon County to the Statehouse.
The effects on policymaking—the nuts and bolts of what members are elected to do—are even greater. State legislators who hail from more professional legislatures engage in more frequent contact with their constituents and have more knowledge of their constituents’ opinions. They more closely reflect the opinions of their constituents and are less likely to skip votes. They pass more votes per session and do a better job overseeing the bureaucracy.
Simply put: Giving legislators the resources to be effective legislators makes them—well—more effective legislators.
Our legislative resources are stagnating at a time when the state is growing, meaning legislators have to represent more constituents than ever with the same resources as before. Through fast-moving news cycles, constituents are paying close attention, and they expect the same from their elected officials. That takes capacity.
North Carolina legislators have considered improving legislative pay a number of times over the years, but it’s been consistently dead on arrival. It’s easy to understand why. “Pay politicians more” isn’t a talking point that’s easy to sell, particularly when more than four out of five Americans believe that government is “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” and well over half agree that “most politicians care only about the interests of the rich and powerful.”
Adding to the challenges of reform is the fact that most North Carolinians vastly overestimate how much members of the General Assembly make. In 2016, North Carolina Rep. Becky Carney quipped that the public thinks legislators “make $100,000 a year.” Carney wasn’t far off. In December 2019, I surveyed a representative group of 525 registered voters in North Carolina. The average respondent believed that members of the North Carolina General Assembly make $124,705 a year—almost nine times their true salary.
But their opinions changed with better information. When respondents learned what legislators really make, they were roughly twice as likely to support raising legislative salaries.
All of this suggests that a little education might have the potential to move the policy needle. A more professional legislature can mean better oversight and less waste, better equity and access, less power to lobbyists, and better responsiveness to constituents.
Increasing legislative pay and legislative professionalism isn’t an idea that polls well right now, but it is one that could lead to real gains in our state, regardless of partisan preference. It’s time to start selling it.
Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, a contributor to Old North State Politics, and a frequent source for national and state journalists alike. He’s the coauthor of The Resilience of Southern Identity and co-editor of The New Politics of North Carolina, both available from UNC Press.