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No limits on democracy

Chris Fitzsimon

Republican legislative leaders didn’t seem to know what to make of the proposals Wednesday by Gov. Beverly Perdue, who appeared at a budget briefing to call for three nonbudget changes at the General Assembly: an independent redistricting commission, greater transparency in the legislative process and limits on the length of legislative sessions.

It’s not clear why Perdue agreed to come to an informal gathering of lawmakers in the first place when her budget director was also scheduled to appear and with her formal State of the State address just a couple of months away.

She apparently wanted to make a few headlines, add to the list of her government-reform proposals and briefly change the discussion at the Legislative Building. She did all three, though most of the coverage of her proposals was that she made them, not a discussion of their merits.

Her call for an independent redistricting commission makes sense, though, as many pundits are now pointing out, it’s an idea she didn’t show much enthusiasm for when she was a powerful member of the state Senate.

Republican leaders continue to claim that there’s not enough time to set up the commission to draw the districts next year, which is absurd and seems like a convenient way to avoid giving up the political power to draw legislative and congressional lines that they have long criticized the Democrats for using.

The proposal to make the legislative process more transparent is also a good one and it is also something Democrats and Perdue could have done.

It’s Perdue’s proposal for limits on legislative sessions that is the most troubling. It’s certainly the one that makes the least sense. Session limits are not a new idea. Lawmakers in both parties have proposed them and the Senate has passed them a couple of times.

Perdue wants to limit long sessions to 90 days and short sessions to 60 days. It would save a little money, but the damage to the legislative process would far outweigh the savings.

The proposal is based on the notion that limiting the time lawmakers are in Raleigh would maintain our citizen legislature in which average citizens can serve. But we clearly don’t have a citizen legislature now, as a glance at the cars underneath the legislative building would tell you.

For the most part, state lawmakers are relatively wealthy, retired or run a business or law firm that they can leave for months at a time. Middle-class workers are not well represented on the floors of the House and Senate. And Perdue’s proposed session limits won’t change that.

Not many people can take three months off one year and two months off the next and commute to Raleigh often during the rest of the year for study commissions and other meetings.

A few years ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that serving in N.C. General Assembly is roughly 80 percent of a full-time job. That’s not just time in session. It includes interim studies, constituent service and campaigning for election.

The pay for that almost full-time job is $13,900 a year. Lawmakers also get travel and expense money; some is taxed, some isn’t, but no one serves in the General Assembly for the wages.

Limiting sessions would simply turn over more control of the legislative process to wealthy interests who can hire a battalion of lobbyists to influence lawmakers and legislative staff members.

State lawmakers write a $20-billion budget and consider thousands of bills, making decisions that affect the lives of everyone in the state. We need more public hearings on the budget and other important issues every year, not less.

The way to open up the General Assembly to allow more people to participate isn’t limiting sessions; it is creating a full-time legislature with reasonable pay so average North Carolinians could afford to serve.

That seems unlikely in this era of anti-government sentiment, but maybe that’s the point. People don’t understand their government if it is hard for them to participate in it.

Let’s set up the redistricting commission to take some of politics out of the process. And by all means, let’s make the work of the General Assembly more transparent. But let’s not set artificial limits on how long the people who represent us can work in Raleigh. The last thing we need is to put limits on democracy.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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