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Does N.C. need to have a full-time legislature?

By Scott Mooneyham
Capitol Press Association
RALEIGH ó A few weeks ago, my dentist mailed to me a copy of USA Todayís review of legislative retirement perks.
I had already seen the piece. But perhaps knowing that I had an upcoming appointment, he wanted to ensure that we had an interesting topic to discuss while I was laid out in the dentist chair with sharp implements stuck in my mouth.
My dentist is a lively conversationalist who enjoys sharing his opinions on the political issues of the day. We never got very far regarding legislative pensions, but he might have been surprised on my take.
The article pointed out that some state legislatures around the country jack up their membersí state-paid retirement payments by using calculations and rules not applied to typical state workers.
The North Carolina General Assembly is among those legislatures. Like some other states, it includes both legislative salary and expenses in the retirement calculation. The formula used to determine the retirement payment also differs than that used for state employees.
Here is why North Carolinians shouldnít be too worked up by any of this: Many of those other states pay their legislators higher salaries.
Here, the base salary for rank-and-file legislators is $13,951. So, even when you include expenses, the calculation doesnít rise to some astronomical figure.
Other abuses do occur, though.
It isnít uncommon for a legislator, for example, to give up his or her legislative seat to receive an appointment to a well-paying state job. Because state retirement is calculated on the highest-paid four years of service, an end-of-career appointment heading a state commission or program can be pretty lucrative once retirement rolls around.
Some might also argue that legislators shouldnít be a part of the state retirement system at all. In North Carolina, as in a few other states, we allegedly have a part-time, citizen legislature. If thatís really the case, perhaps legislators ought to look to whatever else has provided them with income for their retirement.
But do we really have a part-time legislature?
That question was asked more than once during the latest reconvened legislative session. The one-day session, to fix mistakes in bills laying out new electoral districts, marked the third time that legislators had returned to Raleigh since first adjourning in June.
Their latest session ended with a resolution that calls for legislators to return yet again later this month, again in February and again in April. Typically, legislators wouldnít meet in full session again until May.
Legislative leaders say the additional meeting times are needed because of once-in-a-decade electoral redistricting. Democratic legislators accuse the Republican leaders of turning the legislature into a full-time endeavor.
In a state as big and complicated as North Carolina, shouldnít it be? And shouldnít legislators receive a full-time wage? Otherwise, you get what we really have now ó not a citizen legislature, but a retiree legislature.
Thatís a bigger problem than a pension formula.

Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.

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