I have been writing a regular column on North Carolina politics and public policy since 1986. Over three decades of writing about and talking to politicians in Raleigh, few issues have come up more often than the relatively low pay that state legislators receive.
I don’t mean to suggest that lawmakers talk a lot about the issue in public. They don’t. If politicians complain too much about their pay, it gives voters the idea that maybe someone else would appreciate the job more.
But in private, they grumble. Currently, members of the General Assembly make up just under $14,000 a year in base salary, plus “per diem” payments to cover room and board while the legislature is in session and a reimbursement of 29 cents a mile for weekly trips to Raleigh.
During some odd-year “long sessions,” then, an average lawmaker can receive a gross income in the 40s. But keep in mind that much of the non-salary compensation is eaten up in meals, rent, gas, and other expenses associated with doing the job.
Obviously, many capable North Carolinians are willing to do the job at this rate of pay. No legislative seats go vacant for lack of interest. But just as obviously, many other capable North Carolinians are not going to sacrifice months of time away from their other careers and families given the compensation state legislators currently receive.
It would be logical to conclude, then, that lower pay leads to less competition for seats, particularly during primaries, as well as some effect on the composition of the resulting legislatures. Empirical studies appear to confirm such conclusions.
But some reformers, usually from the left side of the spectrum, go further to argue that legislatures are unrepresentative of the public at large, with too few average Joes or Janes serving in office. They contend that raising legislative pay would pull more blue-collar workers into office, displacing wealthy business owners, professionals, and retirees.
That’s unlikely. Blue-collar workers rarely serve in offices requiring months away from other jobs. In fact, blue-collar workers rarely serve even in states where legislating is a full-time job and paid as such. Last year, an American Political Science Review study by political scientists Nicholas Carnes of Duke University and Eric Hansen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded that “higher salaries don’t seem to make political office more attractive to workers.” Instead, higher salaries “make it more attractive to professionals who already earn high salaries.” If anything, their findings suggest, potential candidates of modest means will be displaced when pay goes up.
A better argument for raising pay may actually be a conservative one — that elected state legislatures are a critical means of restraining the growth of the administrative state. In modern times, both Congress and legislatures have become increasingly deferential to executive-branch officials, some of whom don’t even change as presidential or gubernatorial administrations change but instead remain in office for decades.
These agency officials make the rules with which businesses and households must contend on a daily basis. Technically, regulations have to be authorized by some past legislative action. In practice, bureaucrats often go far beyond the power clearly delegated to them by elected lawmakers, who in turn lack the knowledge or expertise to detect and stop regulatory abuses.
Both gubernatorial appointees and long-serving agency officials are typically full-time employees and earn substantially higher salaries than lawmakers do. In the Journal of Public Administration Theory and Practice, Graeme Boushey of the University of California-Irvine and Robert McGrath of George Mason University used the difference between executive and legislative pay averages as a proxy for differences in institutional expertise. They found that, holding other factors constant, states with lower-paid legislators relative to bureaucrats issued more regulations than did states with smaller pay differences.
When weighing the pros and cons of raising legislative pay, North Carolinians should keep in mind that the cost of regulations imposed by our state is measured in the tens of billions of dollars a year.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.