Sophomores on the Prowl

By Scott Mooneyham | Apr 10, 2014


RALEIGH -- Every two years, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research
releases survey results ranking the effectiveness of individual state
legislators.
The results are fairly predictable.
The House speaker and Senate president pro tem are typically at the
top of the list. The important committee chairs are close behind. The
rankings are always top-heavy with members of the political party in
power, those in the political majority in their respective chambers.
The rankings roll out in election years, so those near the top trumpet
the results to demonstrate their heft.
Political insiders look at the rankings differently.
They look at trends.
One of the inescapable trends from this year's rankings is how
relative newcomers to the legislature have jumped up.
In the 120-member House, five Republican legislators only in their
second terms climbed into the top-20 in the listings. In the 50-member
Senate, six two-term GOP senators jumped into the top-15 in the
survey.
The results represent quite a difference from when I first began
covering the legislature in 1998. At that time, the unwritten rule for
freshmen legislators was to sit down and keep your mouth shut.

Back then, legislative leaders called on a former colleague, the
Associated Press' Dennis Patterson, to speak to freshmen lawmakers
during an orientation session. One of his messages to them: "If you
are a freshman and I come knock on your door, it probably isn't good
news."
The comment reflected how far down the totem pole newcomers were when
it came to making news as policymakers.
Some might interpret these new rankings as evidence of the strong
political acumen of the current crop of newcomers.
To borrow the words of a real writer, "Isn't it pretty to think so.
As the rankings popped out, one of those political insiders peppered
me with another trend gleaned from the information. He pointed out
that, come 2015, no more than five Senate Democrats will have been in
office when the Democrats last held power in 2010.
I noted that, in 2015, no more than eight Senate Republicans will have
known what it was like to be in the minority. Over in the House, no
more than 41 members (and that number will likely be closer to 35
after the elections) of both parties will have served two terms or
more as the legislative session convenes that year.
That turnover has made it easier to move up quickly in the pecking
order at the General Assembly.
To a large degree, it can be attributed to the change in political
power in Raleigh and new legislative district lines.
But the antiquated notion of a part-time legislature, where
legislators receive base pay of $13,951 and total compensation
typically around $40,000, cannot be overlooked.
For many years, legislators have viewed addressing their pay as
political poison, a surefire way to lose an election.
The real poison, regardless of which party is in power, is state
policy formulated with less and less input from those with
institutional knowledge and expertise.

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