Momentum builds for changes in General Assembly

By Patrick Gannon - The Insider

The N.C. General Assembly finally called it quits for the 2015 session at 4:18 a.m. Sept. 30, more than eight months and 260 calendar days after convening in January.

It marked the longest session since 2001, when lawmakers didn’t go home until Dec. 6 after a legislative period spanning 317 days.

On the calendar, this year’s long session was longer than the long and short sessions combined in 14 bienniums going back to 1973-74. By contrast, the two years of the 2011-12 biennium, the first session after Republicans took control of the N.C. House and N.C. Senate, spanned a combined 224 calendar days, according to information on the General Assembly website,

The duration of this session has reinvigorated talk about whether the state legislature should impose session limits, or, quite differently, become a full-time body. One Republican House member told me just before adjournment that he planned to file a bill next year imposing session limits to force lawmakers to do their jobs and go home. Another legislator might decide to seek legislation to bring North Carolina a full-time General Assembly, but that remains to be seen.

Gov. Pat McCrory, for one, is on record criticizing the legislature for the time it took to pass a budget this year. That came more than two and a half months into the fiscal year, which began July 1. The budget process certainly extended this session.

“I think we need to make decisions long before the school year starts,” McCrory said. He added that the General Assembly should “keep the integrity of part-time politicians.”

Currently, only 11 states, including North Carolina, do not somehow limit the lengths of their regular legislative sessions, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others include Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In the other 39, limits typically are set by constitution, statute or chamber rules. They also may be set indirectly by restricting the days for which a legislator receives compensation, per diem or mileage reimbursement.

A separate question is whether the General Assembly should be full-time or part-time. Because all legislatures are designed differently, it’s not easy to put them in one box or the other. The Conference of State Legislatures puts state legislatures into five categories: full-time, full-time lite, hybrid, part-time lite and part-time. North Carolina is considered a hybrid state, where legislators spend more than two-thirds of a full-time job doing legislative work but don’t make enough money to make ends meet without other income sources.

Members of full-time legislatures – in high-population states like California, New York and Pennsylvania – generally make enough money not to need another job and have larger staffs than lawmakers in the other states.

In part-time legislatures – including Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Utah, among others – members on average spend about half of a full-time job doing legislative work, make little money and employ small staffs. Part-time legislatures are typically found in lower-population, rural states.

I don’t pretend to know whether the N.C. General Assembly should be full-time, part-time or somewhere in between, or whether time limits should be imposed on sessions. But I do know those topics are getting air time in the capital these days, and they are well worth taking a few days next year to chat about.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of N.C. Insider.

By Patrick Gannon

The Insider

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