HILL: Pay North Carolina state legislators $100,000

General Assembly - Raleigh - May 2020
N.C. General Assembly as seen from the grounds of the Capitol building. (A.P. Dillon, North State Journal)

Raise the pay of all N.C. state senators and representatives to $100,000 annually, and leave it at that.

Make the pay raise effective January 2025. There would be two intervening elections in 2022 and 2024 where voters can decide if their state senator or representative is worth sending back to Raleigh and paying them $100,000 per year from then on.

The last pay raise for NCGA elected members was 26 years ago. That is simply ridiculous. We are asking fellow North Carolinians to manage a massive annual consolidated state budget while paying them less than half of what a parking lot attendant makes in the public garage across the street.

Would you run for the NCGA if you thought you would only be paid $13,951 and endure all the insults you would get from news media and on Twitter?

No, you wouldn’t. Very few very successful people in any other walk of life ever run for public office, because it is such a tough environment to begin with. Getting paid $13,951 doesn’t make the decision to run any easier.

Leaders of both parties are going to have to agree to step out together 100% on this proposal, or else it will never happen. If one side sees political advantage in attacking the other side that proposed it unilaterally, they will win the public-relations fight, because it is far too easy to tag incumbents as enriching themselves at public expense.

With today’s salary of $13,951 and a $104 per diem payment which is supposed to cover travel, lodging and food costs but probably doesn’t, most people simply cannot afford the financial sacrifice to run for the North Carolina General Assembly. Wealthy businessmen and women or retirees on pensions have the means to support themselves without a measly $13,951 salary, but we need representatives from all walks of life and all ages to debate issues that affect us all. 

State Auditor Beth Wood found $11.4 million was made to unverified providers in the state Medicaid program last year. Those annual savings alone would more than pay for the additional $10,325,880 it would take to raise 120 legislator salaries to $100,000.

In 1816, Congressman Richard Johnson of Kentucky casually told his fellow Kentuckian, Henry Clay, who was speaker of the House, that paying members of Congress $6 per diem encouraged them to stay in session longer than they would do otherwise in order to collect extra pay. $6 per day was less than what many government clerks earned at the time, remarkably similar to the pay schedule of the NCGA today where some staff members make over 10 times the salary of elected members.

Johnson’s committee came back with a recommendation, which became law, that replaced the $6 per diem with a flat $1,500 annual salary. Speaker Clay would see his previous $12 per diem replaced with a $3000 annual salary.

The 14th Congress under Mr. Clay committed two grievous errors. They were oblivious to the fact that $1,500 exceeded the annual income of virtually every voter in the 19 states at the time. $3,000 put Henry Clay in the top .001% of his day. 

The second mistake they made with the “Salary Grab,” as it was called, was making it effective in the next Congress, not after one or two intervening elections down the road. The American people may have trouble understanding complex foreign policy or budget issues, but they sure as heck can be convinced that some “sneaky, sniveling, corrupt politician” had voted to get rich at the taxpayer trough.

75% of the members of Congress who voted for the pay raise in 1816 did not return to Congress in 1817. However, the new members got to keep the pay raise, so they should have at least sent a thank you note and bottle of whiskey to every incumbent they defeated.

Serving in the public trust is a great honor, one of the highest honors a person can receive. But we are electing people to do the public’s work, not enter a monastery and chant medieval hymns in Latin in a sackcloth. Call your legislator and tell them you support raising legislator’s pay to $100,000 to manage the state’s $52 billion annual consolidated budget in 2025.

Unless you want to run, of course, and work 60-hour weeks while in session for $13,951.