It is not a surprise that proposals to limit the length of legislative sessions are making the rounds in Raleigh these days. A lot of people are still reeling from the contentious and grueling eight-and-half-month long session that ended September 30 and don’t want to go through that again.
Rep. Gary Pendleton wants to put a bipartisan commission together to build support for a constitutional amendment limiting legislative sessions to 90 days in odd numbered years when lawmakers pass a biennial budget and 45 days in even years when budget adjustments are made.
Pendleton told the News & Observer that his commission would also study increasing legislative terms from two years to four years and increase base pay for lawmakers from $13,591 to 20,000 a year plus the $104 a day for expenses they currently receive when they are in session.
Pendleton says the idea is to allow more people to serve in the General Assembly and that’s a worthy goal but his proposals won’t do much to achieve it, and will instead mostly just make things easier on folks already in office and the lobbyists and the rest of the state capital crowd.
It is true that not many middle class people can leave their job for six to nine months every two years and three months in the year in between which is what the current system demands. But not many working people can leave for three months every other spring either and then take another 45 days off the year after that.
Increasing the pay is a good idea but a few thousand dollars won’t do much to allow more people to serve. And increasing legislative terms to four-years is moving in the wrong direction, making the General Assembly less accountable to the people they are supposed to represent.
That’s also the most important flaw with session limits like the ones Pendleton is proposing, that it limits democracy.
Compressing the time lawmakers are in Raleigh means limiting the input citizens can have in legislative decisions. It means fewer public hearings and less testimony on the state budget and less time for committees to study controversial issues. And it means more power for well-connected lobbyists and legislative staff.
It is true that this year’s session wasn’t exactly the most transparent in history, with rushed votes on bills no one had previously seen and hastily called committee meetings where the public was denied a chance to speak.
But those were choices legislative leaders made intentionally, they weren’t forced on them by a tight calendar.
If Pendleton really wants to allow more people to serve in the General Assembly he needs to broaden the scope of what his bipartisan commission should consider.
It should include the possibility of a full-time General Assembly with a decent salary and a predictable calendar. North Carolina is the ninth biggest state in the county with a $21 billion budget that deserves more hearings, more discussion and more testimony from the people whose lives are affected by it.
Folks who are worried that would mean an end to the citizen legislature should remember that in reality that ended a long time ago. Most citizens have no chance to serve.
Then Pendleton should do something about the ability of people to run for office in the first place. A candidate in a contested race in an urban area has to raise several hundred thousand dollars to have a chance. Most folks don’t have that kind of money or friends that can give it.
That’s why some states have passed public financing programs for qualified candidates, a system North Carolina used to have for a few Council of State races and judicial elections until the Republicans abolished it.
It’s time to revisit that decision. People need to be able to afford to run as well as being able to afford to serve.
Good for Rep. Pendleton for recognizing that there’s a problem in the way the General Assembly currently operates. But simply making life easier for the folks already there isn’t the way to solve it.
Let’s don’t put limits on democracy. Let’s open it up so more people can serve and so more constituents can have input into the decisions made by the General Assembly that affect their lives.