According to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, North Carolinians agree on one thing—that the General Assembly is doing a poor job. With the budget over two months late and major disagreements between the Republican-led chambers on major issues such as sales tax distribution and teacher assistants, no one should be surprised that public approval is so low.
Too often critics point to ideological differences, even among the Republican leadership of the House and Senate, as the reason why the budget is late or that major reforms don’t take place. Although political differences exist and explain some of the problems the General Assembly experiences, there is a more fundamental problem in North Carolina. North Carolina can no longer operate with a part-time legislature because we are a growing state with increasingly complex policy issues.
The legislative dysfunction we are experiencing is not one rooted in the controlling political party, as Democrats had similar problems when they ran Jones Street. The real cause of legislative dysfunction is that we no longer live in the 19th Century when state government and the accompanying budget were significantly smaller. The issues faced by the General Assembly and the size of the budget necessitates a professional legislators who can spend sufficient time on governing to solve the problems facing the state.
Since 1980, for example, the General Assembly has passed a budget on or before the June 30 deadline only seven times, as compared to earlier budgets when needing an extension was exceedingly rare. When tens of billions of dollars are at stake and over 1600 bills in which House and Senate members take action, having longer sessions and delayed budgets is understandable.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) classifies eight states as having full-time legislatures, including states much larger than North Carolina, such as California, but also those significantly smaller, such as Wisconsin and Alaska. North Carolina is considered to have a hybrid legislature by the NCSL, a category in which legislators spend two-thirds of their time in activities related to their political office, but whose total compensation is not enough to allow them to live without another source of income.
Increasing the legislator’s annual salary to $80,000, the average of all full-time state legislators, would add approximately $10 million to the cost of operating the legislature. Citizens would undoubtedly balk at the additional expense, especially given the legislature’s low approval rating, but the good governance that would accrue if North Carolina adopted a full-time legislature would more than offset the costs.
The main argument for a full-time legislature is that House and Senate members need more time to fully deliberate public policy issues. Tax reform has been considered for over thirty years, but a complete modernization of the system has not occurred, in part because legislators lack the time to take on this complex system. Other issues, such as mental health reform, don’t get done because these policy issues are difficult to do in the midst of their regular legislative business and the desire to keep sessions short.
Likewise, many issues during this session seemed rushed and decided with little to no public input. Critics argued that these bills were voted into law without deliberation because leadership did not want input, but the fact remains that many bills need further scrutiny by legislators and the public and without a full-time legislature with more time devoted to committee meetings and public hearings, this will not happen.
Another reason for investing in a full-time legislature is to make it possible that a wider range of citizens serve in the House and Senate. The current legislative salary of just under $14,000 per year, plus monthly expenses while in session, makes it virtually impossible for most North Carolinians to consider running for these offices. Most teachers, service sector employees or those without a second income stream cannot serve in the legislature that is supposed to represent its citizens.
Governmental reform issues like employing a full-time legislature or nonpartisan redistricting rarely capture citizens’ attention. Without fundamental change in the way we conduct state politics, we will continue to see missed budget deadlines and be disappointed in the policy decisions our legislators make.
Donald Trump’s continued strength in public opinion polls despite controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants and John McCain, among others, confounds pundits. More significantly, his presence at the top of the nomination field heading into the first debate worries many in the Republican Party, as they consider the long-term implications of Trump’s brash campaign style.
Although it is too early to determine Trump’s fate or the ultimate impact of his candidacy on the party, there are many lessons the GOP can learn from the rise of Donald Trump.
Presidential elections are going to attract large and diverse fields. Traditionally, the Republican nomination process was an orderly affair with small fields and a nominee being the person who had “paid his dues” through previous runs for the White House. Beginning in 2012 this orderly process has been dismantled by two significant events. First, Barack Obama proved that little political experience was an advantage in winning the presidency. Likewise, the 2010 Citizens United ruling changed the funding of presidential campaigns. Many Republican candidates in 2012 and 2016 circumvented traditional sources of funding, like the party by having supportive independent expenditure groups, often funded primarily by a billionaire supporter.
Donald Trump’s entry and early success in the polls indicates that political experience is not necessary to gain the support of almost one-quarter of likely Republican primary voters. Also, although Trump has the ability to self-finance his campaign, he symbolizes the new breed of presidential candidate who doesn’t need party regulars for his campaign war chest.
Leadership within the Republican Party has declining influence. With the rise of Super PACs and billionaire donors, political parties have seen their influence over the nomination process decline. Party leadership can no longer dictate, through controlling financial resources and persuasion, the number and type of candidates seeking the nomination, or the strategy and tactics used by these candidates. When Donald Trump attacked John McCain, Rick Perry, and Lindsey Graham, many within the Republican establishment chastised Trump for violating Ronald Reagan’s mantra about “not speaking ill of any fellow Republican.” These attempts to change Trump’s behavior not only failed to soften his statements, but appeared to strengthen his standing among supporters.
A significant portion of the electorate continues to be angry. Donald Trump’s core message is that government and its leaders are dysfunctional and this taps into historically high levels of dissatisfaction in government, as measured by recent Gallup polls. Although Ted Cruz and other Republican candidates attack Washington, Trump’s status as a true outsider and his ability to attack politicians, even Republicans, as “idiots,” or make bold statements about how he would deal with China plays into the frustration many Americans feel about America’s inability to deal with domestic and foreign issues. People seemed unconcerned about Trump’s lack of detail on many issues or even his seeming inconsistencies on issues like immigration. They are more attracted to the perception of Trump as a strong person of accomplishment.
There is no longer a distinction between entertainment and politics. For the last 20 years, the distinction between entertainer and politician has all but disappeared. From the election of actors and comedians to prominent political positions to President Obama’s comfort level in noshing with Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart, we have entered an era in which politicians need to be as concerned about their Q-score as their approval ratings.
Donald Trump is a celebrity who is comfortable hosting The Apprentice, flying his private jet to the British Women’s Open golf tournament, and exchanging tweets with actors and athletes. He understands that ratings on his NBC show depended on his outrageous statements and hallmark line “You’re fired!” While many of the 2016 Republican candidates for president jockey for slots on Fox News or Meet the Press, Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the Republican field is because he has always been an entertainer.
Donald Trump’s popularity among Republican primary voters may wane in the coming months or, conversely, he may solidify his role as a top Republican contender, but the GOP would be well served to acknowledge that the rules of the game have changed in significant ways.