RALEIGH — Another annual meeting of the North Carolina General Assembly is poised again to end late in the summer, with lawmakers dug in for negotiations on the public schools, Medicaid and economic incentives.
Will they stay even longer?
Jokes abound at the Legislative Building that the officially part-time legislature meeting since mid-January will still be in Raleigh for trick-or-treating or season's greetings. A small, fake Christmas tree was spotted on the Senate dais one day last month.
The truth is no one really knows when the session will end. That has some lawmakers worried annual ambiguity on adjournment discourages citizens from running for the Legislature and encourages incumbents with other employment at home to ultimately run away from the legislature.
While some argue mandating session length limits in the law would bring predictability, others suggest a full-time Legislature might be more appropriate for a state of 10 million people that spends $50 billion in state and federal funds annually.
“It's a debate that we need to have,” said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, who first joined the Legislature in 2005. “North Carolina respects and values the idea of a citizen Legislature. At the same time, North Carolina is one of the ten most populous states in the country.”
North Carolina is among 11 states that don't set formal restrictions on how long legislative bodies meet in regular work sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
North Carolina lawmakers rely on self-imposed deadlines and the July 1 fiscal year start as a target to complete the budget bill, and hopefully complete remaining work a couple weeks later. A budget law hasn't been enacted on time in 12 of the last 16 years, covering Democratic and Republican control. This year, a stop-gap spending measure expires Aug. 14, but that could be extended.
“We need to figure a way to make the process a little smoother and less contentious,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, a lawmaker since 1989.
The number of calendar days covering each two-year session grew from 232 days on average during the 1980s to 288 in the 1990s and 317 in the 2000s, based on legislative data analyzed by The Associated Press. When Republicans took over in 2011, they passed a budget and adjourned by mid-June, completing the shortest two-year session since the mid-1980s. The Legislature went back to old ways in 2013 and 2014.
Patrick Ballantine, a former Republican Senate minority leader, said he remembers too many times in which the Legislature was still working on his August wedding anniversary. But he also worries narrow session limits like those in Virginia — 90 calendar days every two years — will lead to more power for unelected officials.
“I don't mind them staying here until they get their work done,” said Ballantine, now a lobbyist. “I'm just concerned that you're going to have a hard time attracting the best and the brightest to become public servants if you're going to make them be all year at such low pay.”
Not including expenses, most legislators make the same $13,951 annual salary last changed during Ballantine's first full year in the Senate in 1995. Recent raise attempts have gone nowhere or became political dynamite against those who proposed them.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said two unprecedented weeks of General Assembly vacation this year — after Easter and after July 4 — shouldn't be as construed as moving toward full-time sessions. Texas, Georgia and North Carolina are only among the 10 most populated states without “full-time legislatures” as defined by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Senate is shutting down most of its committees after this week to try to build adjournment momentum.
Still, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said a formal method limiting session lengths is “probably the more politically feasible approach.”