Legislators go home!

Published August 17, 2023

By Tom Campbell

Those who follow our legislature know that each session usually has one or two initiatives for which it becomes known. For what will this current session be known? It’s hard to tell just now but it might be the massive power grab our lawmakers have made. One fact is clear. This session has gone on too long. Having convened January 11th, it looks like it will be late September or early fall before they adjourn.
A reporter asked, “what’s the big deal if they don’t pass a budget prior to the state’s new fiscal year?” Aside from the obvious lack of discipline, state law requires cities and counties to pass their budgets prior to July 1, but these local governments can’t fully implement those budgets until they know what the Assembly does that impacts them. Delayed budgets are especially acute problems in healthcare, transportation and other functions of state government, but perhaps most critical in our schools.  
School bells are ringing, and our teachers, administrators and staff not only don’t know how much they will be paid, but they also don’t know how their schools will be funded. This uncertainty reverberates from top to bottom in education.
Early this session lawmakers finally agreed to expand Medicaid to an estimated 600,000 residents, but in pure political gamesmanship the measure won’t take full effect until a budget is approved. Legislators wanted to box Governor Cooper into not vetoing the document, regardless of special provisions, pork and partisan projects they add.  
Other states are able to pass budgets on a timely basis and get their work done within reasonable time constraints. As my former NC SPIN colleague John Hood recently wrote, “In Virginia, lawmakers meet in regular session for 30 calendar days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered ones. In Georgia, the annual limit is 40 “legislative days” (a different measure). In Tennessee, it’s 90 legislative days. South Carolina applies a different deadline: each regular session must end by the first Thursday in June. Nearby Florida meets for 60 calendar days a year. The Texas legislature technically convenes for regular session every other year.” Ask yourself, is our state demonstratively better governed than these? Nope!
We should really be enraged about how long the legislature meets and their continually missing budget deadlines. What needs changing?
Let’s begin with session and term limits. We should follow other states mandating limitations on the length of sessions. Next, we should increase the lawmakers’ terms to four years instead of the current two. That way legislators could focus on their work instead of constantly raising money for re-election immediately after they win. They should “term out” after 4 terms (16 years). That’s long enough for a “citizen legislature.” And raise legislative pay to a respectable level so better candidates can offer themselves. If you aren’t retired or work for some special interest you can’t afford to spend the number of days our lawmakers have to be in Raleigh. 
While in the change mode we need limits on how long leadership can hold their positions. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger is the longest-serving state elected leader in the country, having served since 2000. He was elected Pro Tem in 2011. House Speaker Tim Moore was first elected in 2002 and has been Speaker since 2015, another record. A Governor can’t serve but two four-year terms. Why should people - who weren’t even elected by all the voters of the state - be allowed to become so entrenched and powerful? Leaders should serve no more than 8 years, ensuring new ideas, new chairmanships and different styles.
But face it, those with power want to keep it, so lawmakers are unlikely to pass any legislation they view as restrictive of their powers. 
The only way significant changes will be made is for us to make them. Any time anyone starts suggesting change the response is that we can make change at the ballot box, but that dog won’t hunt. The reality is that incumbents win more than 60 percent of the time. They often run unchallenged because they have advantages in name recognition, raising money and besides, gerrymandered districts protect them.  
Real change must come another way. I have long objected to the concept that North Carolina should allow ballot initiatives, where citizens can propose changes either to law or the state constitution by attaining a sufficient number of voter signatures and forcing a vote, but I’ve changed my thinking.
 26 states currently allow some form of citizen-initiated ballot measures, with a plurality of voters approving or declining the initiative. The voters, not lawmakers impose changes. According to Ballotpedia, 21 states allow for citizen-initiated state statutes to be voted upon, 18 allow initiated constitutional amendments and two even allow voters to veto legislative action.
If you agree that change is needed, make sure to tell your legislator while he or she is home for the summer. And tell them they’ve been in session long enough. 
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.