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New crop of state legislators unlikely

RALEIGH – With all of the defections from the General Assembly as of late, you’d think dozens – if not hundreds – of qualified candidates from across the state would be lining up to run for those offices.

But they aren’t, at least not so far, and probably won’t.

Just a few weeks removed from the 2015 legislative session, at least 10 General Assembly members, including a few of the youngest lawmakers, have either resigned or announced they wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016. Many others are on the fence about running again.

But despite the open seats, it’s still unlikely that a large, diverse new crop of political hopefuls will throw their hats into the ring for the General Assembly in 2016.

Here are four reasons why:

1) Gerrymandering. The drawing of House and Senate districts by Republicans after the 2010 U.S. Census left the vast majority of them strongly favoring candidates of one party or the other.

Before Election Day in November 2014, 59 of the 120 House seats and 19 of 50 Senate seats already were decided because only one candidate appeared on ballots in those races. That year, only about 20 House seats and a dozen Senate seats were competitive at all. That likely isn’t going to change much in 2016, in large part because many districts are so lopsided.

People won’t run because they know they would have little chance of success.

2) Time. This year’s legislative session spanned 260 calendar days, pretty much a full-time job for legislators, most of whom have careers and families back home. This is supposed to be a part-time, “citizen” legislature.

Former Rep. Brian Brown of Greenville, one of the younger members of the General Assembly, resigned his seat right after session to take a position on the staff of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. He has a 6-year-old, 2-year-old and 10-month-old at home.

“You have a 10-month-old and you start to look at the hard facts that you’re spending more time away from your family … than you are being with them,” Brown told me recently. “You can always try to come back to politics, but you can’t get a 10-month-old back. It’s the right decision for my family.”

Those words play directly into the ongoing conversation about whether limits should be placed on lengths of sessions to ensure it remains a part-time legislature.

3) Money. Rank-and-file General Assembly members make $13,951 a year, plus a $104 per diem during sessions, $559 a month for expenses and 29 cents a mile for travel to and from Raleigh. It can add up to $30,000 to $40,000 a year, but much of that money must be spent on accommodations, food and other expenses.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said recently that the pay doesn’t attract people.

“Young, bright, and maybe not-so-young bright people … can’t afford to do this,” he said.

Legislators also are talking about the pay issue, but it would be politically dangerous for members to give themselves raises.

The pay and time issues make it difficult to serve in the General Assembly for everyday people who aren’t retired, independently wealthy or in very flexible jobs.

“Until there is a movement to make civic engagement more practical and more accessible, we’re going to continue with the same issues, and the young people that are inspired to serve aren’t going to do so long-term,” said Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, 31, at a recent event.

4) Earlier primary. The General Assembly moved the 2016 primaries up to March 15, with the candidate filing period in December. That means potential candidates will have less time to decide whether to run.

All that said, I hope I’m wrong and that everyday, middle-class North Carolinians decide to run for the General Assembly in 2016. They are needed.

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