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NC lawmakers turn to funding once ruled unethical. Are their $14,000 salaries the cause?

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 9/13/2021 Lucille Sherman, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Sep. 13—RALEIGH — Last fall, with the 2020 election quickly approaching, a handful of North Carolina lawmakers tasked with refereeing the ethics of themselves and their colleagues gathered behind closed doors and quietly repealed a sweeping guideline they had adopted just five months prior.

That guideline, adopted just as quietly in May last year, had barred lawmakers from collecting state money to cover food, lodging and travel while working at the General Assembly and simultaneously using campaign accounts to pay for the same housing, meals and travel in the capital city — a practice that a campaign watchdog has described as "double dipping."

The move protected at least two lawmakers who had continued to use campaign funds for housing while collecting the state per diem stipends for food and lodging, between May and October last year. This year, about a dozen lawmakers have used both sources of funding.

With a housing per diem that barely covers a night's stay at a Raleigh hotel, using campaign dollars to help pay for rent and food in Raleigh may help some legislators afford to serve in the General Assembly.

After all, the state's legislature has one of the lowest salaries in the country, at just $13,591 a year, which may discourage younger and less wealthy people from running.

"I couldn't afford to do this job if my husband were not employed," said Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat who has represented Asheville since 2004. "We're stretching the money that we make to the absolute nth degree."

Fisher is one of about a dozen lawmakers who have used campaign money in addition to their $104 per diem payment for food and housing to cover lodging in Raleigh this year. She said she did not know the legislature had ever restricted the use of the two funding sources and was previously told it was allowed.

Elections board rule

This issue arose in late 2019, when longtime government watchdog Bob Hall filed a complaint accusing Senate leader Phil Berger of using campaign donors' money to buy a Raleigh home. Berger's staff said he had received prior approval from North Carolina's election board to do so.

The elections board later adopted a rule change barring use of campaign dollars on homes that legislators or their relatives own, and the legislature's ethics commission implemented similar, but broader, guidance shortly after.

In October, Hall filed a complaint against two lawmakers, Republican Reps. John Torbett and Josh Dobson, who were still collecting their per diems even though their campaigns were also paying for housing, saying the pair had enriched their "private fortunes with tax-exempt income."

"I think there is a problem with the compensation for legislators and that really sets up a problem where they may begin to look for financial help in other ways," Hall said in an interview with The News & Observer. "That then creates some inequality among them."

Instead of enforcing the new guideline, the legislative ethics committee repealed it, saying that the ban was unnecessary because of the board of elections rule.

The committee's initial ban was much broader than the board of elections rule, however. It banned all forms of "double dipping." The elections board banned the practice specifically for residential properties lawmakers or their spouses own.

Ethics committee chairs could not be reached for comment.

'This is supposed to be a citizen legislature'

Torbett, who did not respond to a request to a spokesperson for comment, has spent more than $10,000 in campaign contributions on housing since January, far more than any other lawmakers. Fisher and Rep. Brenden Jones, a Republican from Tabor City, spent more than $4,000 each this year. Five other Republican lawmakers, Rep. Mike Clampitt, of Bryson City, Rep. Dean Arp, of Monroe, Rep. Donny Lambeth, of Winston-Salem, Rep. Mark Brody, of Monroe, and Rep. Kyle Hall, of King, spent around $3,000 each so far this year for lodging or housing-related expenses, like utilities.

Jones, Clampitt, Arp, Lambeth, Brody and Hall did not respond to a request through a spokesperson for comment, either.

Low pay is particularly problematic for lawmakers who live far away, said Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper, though not all those who use campaign dollars to pay for housing live hours from the legislature.

Cooper also highlighted the fact that North Carolina's legislative sessions don't have set start and end dates — session can go on for an indeterminate amount of time. That makes becoming a lawmaker especially difficult for people who have families or work inflexible jobs, in addition to living far away.

"Not only are we not paying people, we don't let them go home at a consistent time," Cooper said.

Many state legislators work in professions that are flexible, like law, are retired, or have spouses who make enough to support them. If lawmakers voted to raise their own pay or per diem amounts, more people might be willing to serve — people who can't afford to quit their job for one that pays less than $14,000. That could, in turn, make the legislature more diverse.

A pay increase could also root out corruption, Cooper said.

"You're still incentivizing people to run for the office and don't need the money or that do and they find other means to get it," Cooper said. "If you pay someone $13,900 a year, they're going to have to find other means to make ends meet. We hope that it's not corruption, but I don't think we should be surprised if it is."

Lawmakers are reluctant to pass a bill that would increase their pay, however, over concerns that voters would not reelect legislators who voted for such a measure. The legislature's pay has not been increased in some 25 years, and the current per diem rate was based on the 1993 federal reimbursement rate.

Still, a handful of lawmakers have tried to address the issue.

Several lawmakers introduced a bill this year that would increase the per diem and travel reimbursement rates to 2019 federal rates in 2023. It would also increase per diem and mileage rates for other state employees.

Another bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim Burgin, of Angier, would create a commission to study the legislature's terms and term limits, session limits and compensation.

Neither bill has progressed, and the legislature is expected to stop voting on most bills this year in the coming weeks. The bills could be taken up in next year's session, however.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.

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