Granting Oneself a Special Benefit
We don’t necessarily begrudge state legislators their relatively modest pay. They work longer and longer hours these days — and put up with more and more stress.
Nor is the purpose here to complain about the fact that members of the General Assembly also get expense stipends — or that they allow themselves to build up pension benefits over the years, though that’s something that fewer and fewer workers in the private sector enjoy.
But the story does have one twist, recently brought to light by The News & Observer of Raleigh, that needs to be addressed. The lawmakers, it seems, have at least one benefit that is available to hardly anyone else: Under a state law passed in 1994, they are allowed to include those annual expense stipends as part of the base salary on which their pensions are calculated.
So is that such a big deal? Maybe not. But it is just the kind of thing that folks can latch onto and cite as evidence that elected officials, whether state or federal, enjoy cozy perks denied to the rest of us. Revelations like these, whether major or minor, can only contribute to general levels of cynicism toward our elected leaders.
An individual state senator or representative receives a base salary of $13,951 in compensation for his or her part-time duties. That may not sound like much, but hang on. Each member also gets an expense allowance of $6,708 per year to cover things like travel, meals and lodging. Those in leadership positions get heftier expense amounts, up to an extra $10,000 annually for the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate.
Pension figures for regular state employees are calculated by multiplying their compensation by 1.82 percent and then multiplying that by the total years of service. The percentage for legislators, by contrast, is a much heftier 4.02 percent. On top of that comes the added boost caused by figuring the expense allowance into the compensation total.
For an example of the result, we need look no further than the figures for former House Speaker Joe Hackney, the Chapel Hill Democrat whose district has included a sliver of Moore County. Now that he has announced he won’t be running for re-election, he will be receiving an annual pension of $41,330 — nearly $13,000 of which comes from the stipend benefit. Not bad.
To put things in perspective: Most other states do not let their legislators include expense and per diem stipends in their pension calculations. And among the dozen or so that do permit it, three — including South Carolina — are now considering bills that would end the practice.
For the sake of appearances, if nothing else, North Carolina should do likewise.
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