Throwback Thursday: Does NC Have a Citizen Legislature?

The discussion of whether North Carolina should continue to have a part-time, citizen legislature or move to a full-time, professional legislature continues.  We take a look back to the year 2000, when the Center published Does North Carolina Have a Citizen Legislature?  

This article was released in Vol. 18, No.4 of North Carolina Insight in 2000.

North Carolina long has prided itself on its citizen legislature. On paper, here’s how it works: legislators serve in a part-time body in which most of the members hold other jobs and gather in Raleigh for legislative sessions each year. In odd­ numbered years, they are expected to meet from about January to July to make laws and adopt a budget. This is referred to as the “long session” of the General Assembly. Though the constitution speaks of biennial sessions in odd-numbered years, since 1974 the legislature also has come to Raleigh in even-numbered years for what is called the “short session”-usually from May to June or July. The purpose of this session is to make adjustments to the budget and address a limited agenda, as authorized in the adjournment resolution of the previous year.

That’s on paper. The reality is something different. In 1989, the General legislature’s long session stretched 214 calendar days (from January 11 to August 12), with one extra session on December 7. In 1997, the legislature came close to that record for a long session with 212 calendar days in Raleigh, meeting from January 29 through August 28. Then in 1998, the so-called year of the “short” session, legislators convened for a 172 calendar-day session to adjust the budget-a record for a short session. They had already been called by the governor for a 38-day extra session to adopt a child health insurance program. The 1999 long session lasted a more manageable 176 days, and the legislature adopted a budget before the start of the July 1fiscal year-a major accomplish­ ment and key to ending the session in a timely fashion. But the fact that a 176- day session was viewed as a notable accomplishment shows just how far the legislature has strayed from its part-time roots.

The long-term trend toward longer and longer legislative sessions has convinced some legislators that steps need to be taken to preserve the citizen, or part-time, legislature through measures such as stronger enforcement of the rules or con­ stitutional limits on the length of legislative sessions. But the term “citizen legis­lature” means different things to different people, and how one defines the term dictates different approaches to preserving the citizen legislature or to switching to a full-time legislature.

Traditionally, the citizen legislature has meant a part-time legislature, sug­gesting controlling session length as a means of preserving it. But some see the citizen legislature as one broadly representative of the populace in terms of race, gender, and work experience. It’s hard to imagine how to produce such a legislature short of the lottery system practiced by the ancient Greeks, but higher pay might attract candidates from more walks of life and move the legis­ lature toward a body that is more representative in terms of race and gender. Still others view a citizen legislature as one in which all citizens can afford to serve- which suggests reforms such as public financing of legislative races or higher legislative pay. Finally, there are those who are convinced that North Carolina’ s population has grown too large, the budget too big, and the affairs of state too complex to entrust thejob of making laws and enacting a budget to a part-time body. These lawmakers believe the best answer is to abandon the notion of a part-time legislature in favor of a professional or full-time legislature. Again, higher pay would be part of the equation.

What is a citizen legislature? Does North Carolina have a citizen legislature? Does it matter? Despite a plethora of opinions on the subject, the General Assembly has engaged in too little intentional deliberation about what it should be and how it should get there. As a result, at leastfive markers indicate that North Carolina is moving toward a full-time legislature. They are: (1) longer sessions; (2) more special sessions to deal with issues that arise when the legisla­ ture is out of session; (3) more study commissions convening between sessions; (4) appropriations committees meeting between the two most recent sessions; and (5) special investigative committees taking on a life of their own both during and between sessions. At present, there is decision by drift, with evolution to­ ward a legislature that is increasingly full-time, but with compensation lagging at the part-time level because raising legislative pay is too difficult politically.

Read the Full PDF Article:  Does NC Have a Citizen Legislature?

At the time of original publication, Ran Coble was the executive director and Mike McLaughlin was the editor of North Carolina Insight for the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.


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