Voters greatly overestimate how much North Carolina lawmakers make in salary
Low salaries make it infeasible for most people to serve in the legislature
Professionalizing the legislature has real voter support
By the Carolina Forward Research Team
In North Carolina, as in most states, the state legislature is dominated by independently wealthy people (mostly men). Retirees, attorneys and business owners make up a very disproportionate share of members of the legislature – in both parties (though not equally so). One possible reason? The job just doesn’t pay.
Most Americans do not know how much their state legislators are paid (or if they’re paid at all) – and North Carolinians are no exception. Recent research by Dr. Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University (and frequent North Carolina politics commentator) shows that North Carolinians are wildly inaccurate when asked to guess how much they think state lawmakers take home:
In North Carolina, legislators make $13,951, but voters estimated an average salary of $124,705, nearly nine times the actual pay rate. (via Route Fifty)
Consistent with Cooper’s research, new polling from Carolina Forward shows that when informed how much state legislators make, voters are reasonably open to considering a raise:
In addition to their state salary, lawmakers are also eligible to claim certain expenses (like other state workers when travel is required). They are also eligible to claim $104 in per diem while the legislature is in session - though some members have been caught claiming per diem essentially year-round, including weekends, regardless of whether the legislature was in session. There have also been well-publicized incidents where members "double-dip" reimbursements for expenses, once from the state and a second time from their campaign accounts, in effect personally profiting off of things like hotel stays, restaurant meals and travel. Republican Rep. John Torbett has personally made more than $85,000 this way in a little over two years, and Republican Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson made about $90,000 in the same time period when he was in the legislature.
Full-time job, part-time pay
Technically, the North Carolina legislature is considered a "hybrid," falling somewhere between a part- and full-time job. In reality, however, being a state legislator is a full-time commitment. Though the "normal" legislative calendar plans for a 5 or 6-month regular session, in 2021 the legislature was effectively in operation year-round. That is in addition to the outside political demands of getting and staying elected, which is no small feat in a highly competitive state like North Carolina.
The reality is that most North Carolina legislators are effectively volunteers who choose to forgo remunerative careers to pursue a political path. To stay afloat financially, legislators must either have a bread-winning spouse or partner, be independently wealthy, or manage to split their time with another part-time, highly flexible career that allows them to cobble together enough to live on. This effectively screens out the large majority of North Carolinians from public service in the legislature.
To be sure, there are many non-wealthy members who have taken on public service in the legislature despite its heavy financial cost because they simply believe in the cause of serving our state. This is highly commendable. But it is not a sustainable, or even reasonable, basis on which to entrust the governance of our state.
One solution: professionalize
"Professionalizing" the state legislature, by offering a real full-time salary, would be a significant improvement. There are many politically palatable ways this could be done - by benchmarking legislator salaries to the per-capita income ($30,783), or perhaps to the starting salary of new teachers ($35,000). State lawmaking will never be a place where one goes to become wealthy (at least by legitimate means), but this would at least make it a more feasible path for "normal" people to pursue. The cost of full-time state legislator salaries would be immaterial in the context of a $26 billion state budget.
North Carolina is now the 9th largest state in the nation, with an economy of half a trillion dollars and growing. Such a large, thriving state is poorly served by a state legislature made up of rich volunteers and others struggling to make ends meet.