RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Amid a legislative session that has spanned most of the year, state Rep. Brian Turner says serving in the General Assembly has become “unsustainable.”
Turner, a Democrat from Buncombe County, recently announced he’s not running for re-election and said it’s time to re-consider whether serving in the legislature should remain a part-time position.
“Four-hour drive down, four-hour drive back and four days a week for months on end with no real predictability in your schedule, it really just becomes unsustainable long-term,” he said. “The idea of being a full-time legislature, North Carolina is one of the top-10 largest states in the country. Our business is complex. We probably should be looking at that at some point.”
Turner said when he first started serving in the legislature in 2015, he tried renting a room or staying in a hotel. But, due to the unpredictability of the schedule, he began staying in a camper at the State Fairgrounds instead.
This year, the session began in mid-January, and the legislature took the last votes for the year just after Thanksgiving. The Associated Press reported that in terms of the number of days lawmakers met in the respective House and Senate chambers it was the second-longest session since 1965.
Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session Dec. 30, but no votes are scheduled that day.
“The holiday really sort of brought home the idea that I want to be home with the family a bit more,” Turner said. “Year after year it just seemed like the long session kept getting longer and longer.”
Turner, who works as a commercial real estate agent, pointed out that many people who may be interested in serving in the legislature are prevented from doing that because they cannot take the time away from their jobs or can’t afford to live on what state lawmakers earn.
“You can’t be a production-line supervisor at a manufacturing plant and serve because you can’t take the time off work. And, you can’t afford to quit your job because the General Assembly doesn’t pay,” he said.
State legislators earn a base salary of $13,591. They are also eligible for $104 per diem payments and a mileage reimbursement.
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, released a study earlier this year in which he found voters “drastically overestimate” how much legislators make. He surveyed North Carolinians and found on average they think legislators make $124,705. To read more about that study click here:
“I definitely don’t think it’s a strong re-election strategy to vote yourself a raise or to make yourself a full-time job, but that’s where we are,” said Turner.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, ten states have full-time legislatures. North Carolina is among 11 states with no limit on the length of the regular legislative session.
As the session dragged on this year in the fall while budget negotiations were still underway, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) briefly addressed the issue and noted that some states that have limits on the length of session also call special sessions throughout the year to address various issues.
This year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate proposed forming an independent commission to study reforms in the General Assembly. Click here to view.
Under that proposal, the commission would have to be comprised entirely of people who are not in elected office. They would be tasked with looking at various issues and making recommendations on changing things such as: legislator pay, limits on the length of session, length of terms for legislators and term limits for them as well. That would include recommendations on changes that would have to be made to the state Constitution in order to enact them.
“We need to find a way, whether it’s through bipartisanship, whether it’s through some sort of task force, or something like that to make this change. The people of North Carolina deserve better,” said Turner.
All three state representatives from Buncombe County, which include Turner, Susan Fisher and John Ager, have announced they are not running for re-election in 2022. All three are Democrats.
Turner said he’s had conversations with people who may run for those seats, but as he’s highlighted the challenges with serving in the legislature, he said it can be a hard sell.
He said, “One response was, ‘You’re leaving because you don’t want to spend that much time away from home. What makes you think I do?’ And so, it’s tough to recruit for. And, I don’t think that’s unintentional at some level.”