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NC needs full-time legislators to handle complicated matters

RALEIGH — By the time she’d finished, some of those watching had concluded that Gov. Beverly Perdue was out-Republicaning the Republicans.

Perdue, speaking to new House members, touted her proposals to reorganize and streamline state government and called on legislators to do some streamlining of their own.

On one score, her call to action wasn’t so much Republican-like as it was Senate-like.

Perdue, a longtime state senator and presiding officer during Senate floor sessions during eight years as lieutenant governor, dug up an old Senate favorite — limits on the length of legislative sessions.

She told House members that they ought to be able to conclude their business in 90 business days in odd-numbered years and 45 days during even-numbered years.

Six different times, the last in 2003, the state Senate has approved legislation similar to the proposal outlined by Perdue. Six different times, the House has failed to pass the measures.

Typically, the bills have passed the Senate with broad support from Democrats and Republicans.

So, this business about limiting the time that state lawmakers meet in Raleigh is no partisan issue. It does appear to be institutional issue, dividing House and Senate members regardless of party.

The reasons for that institutional divide aren’t so easy to explain.

Maybe the 120 House members aren’t as wealthy, on average, as the 50 members of the Senate. No one gets rich being a member of the North Carolina General Assembly, but overall compensation is based on meeting days.

Or, maybe on average, more Senate members are throwbacks, actual citizen legislators with businesses back home that need tending.

Whatever the case, this idea of a citizens legislature in the nation’s tenth most populous state is probably a quaint notion anyway.

What North Carolina really has, as the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research has well documented, is a retiree legislature. In 2009, 57 of the 170 legislators were 65 years or older. Two decades ago, the number was 37, according to the center.

Perdue and her old colleagues in the state Senate may think that limiting the time that legislators meet would reverse the trend, bringing some predictability to legislators’ schedules. Doing so, a broader cross section of people might run for the offices.

Other states that have limited the length of legislative sessions haven’t necessarily found that to be the case. Often, the limits lead to repeated legislative special sessions. Putting artificial time limits on lawmaking also tends to put more power in the hands of legislative leaders and legislative staffers, meaning less power for rank-and-file legislators.

No amount of nostalgia will change a simple fact: We no longer live in a pastoral, rural state dominated by farming interests. We live in a complicated, busy world. Crafting laws to keep us all from tripping over each other, whether in commerce or just in life, is complicated business.

To do it well, what North Carolina really needs is a full-time legislature with full-time, realistic pay.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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