Local lawmakers mum on what they're doing while state waits for budget

What are lawmakers doing on your dime?
Published: Aug. 31, 2015 at 5:01 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 31, 2015 at 7:06 PM EDT
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Senators leaving the chambers (Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
Senators leaving the chambers (Corey Schmidt | WBTV)

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - An overwhelming majority of the lawmakers who represent Charlotte and the surrounding areas in the North Carolina General Assembly have refused to provide documents outlining what they are doing as leaders in the state house and senate grapple over a budget.

North Carolina has now been without a budget for two months. State law calls for a budget to be passed by July 1 every odd year. So far this session, general assembly has passed three temporary  continuing resolutions that keeps state government operating at spending levels approved in 2013.

The current continuing resolution expires on September 18.

Representative Kelly Hastings, R-Cleveland/Gaston, said it is not unusual for lawmakers pass a continuing resolution to continue negotiating a budget past the July 1 deadline. Hastings is playing a key role in the ongoing negotiations as a chairman of the House Finance Committee.

This year, he said, philosophical differences between Republicans in the house and Republicans in the senate have held up a budget agreement.

"We passed a house budget over to the senate, the senate passed a budget back over to us and it included a lot of complicated tax policy," Hastings explained. "It's not that we're fighting them. It's that we have to do our due diligence to analyze those policies and decide what the ramifications are."

Senator Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, disagreed with Hastings' assertion that the senate's inclusion of tax policy is what slowed negotiations. Rucho is a senior budget writer in the senate.

"No, I don't think so. I think that is something that the governor and the house had initially said," Rucho said when asked about Hastings' claim. "If you don't know what you're spending money on, you've established policy for it. so, I don't buy that answer."

Rucho said he doesn't believe most North Carolina residents are feeling any effect of the legislature's failure to pass a budget on time. He predicted both sides would reach an agreement likely by the end of September.

"You know, we're making progress and we're having some frank discussions as to how best solve the problems that we face," Rucho said.

Every day that lawmakers spend in Raleigh - including weekends - without passing a budget, they collect a $104 per diem.

An analysis of North Carolina General Assembly adjournment dates since 2003 shows, on average, lawmakers reach a budget agreement and adjourn for the year by July 30.

In the month of August, state lawmakers took home $3,224 in per diem in addition to a weekly mileage reimbursement and their monthly salary of  $1,162.58.

House Speaker Tim Moore, from Cleveland County, and other legislative leadership, collect a higher salary.

Hastings cautioned anyone from being fooled into thinking lawmakers are getting rich off of the protracted budget negotiations.

"That's hilarious to think that $104 a day is enough to cover the per diem," Hastings said, noting that the federal per diem reimbursement rate for the Raleigh area is higher. "Most people are probably paying out of their pocket to be here. That's kind of a joke to us around here."

Still, other lawmakers refused to even acknowledge the amount of money Republicans' protracted budget negotiations is costing taxpayers.

It costs $840,000 each month the legislature is in session according to Wesley Hastings, the North Carolina General Assembly Controller.

So, are taxpayers' getting their money's worth? It's hard to say because many area lawmakers have refused to say what they are doing in Raleigh as they wait for a budget agreement.

On Your Side Investigates submitted a request for 43 lawmakers' calendars.

WEB EXTRA: How did your legislator respond?

The request was refused by Republicans and Democrats alike; nearly all of whom cited a provision in state law that exempts documents prepared by legislative staff from public disclosure. The lawmakers argued that since their legislative assistants maintain their calendars and schedules, those documents fall under the law.

Representative Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe/Watauga, was among the Charlotte-area legislators who refused to provide details of what they do on a daily basis.

Jordan went so far as to refuse an interview request to discuss what he does in Raleigh on a daily basis because, he said, that information is confidential.

For his part, Hastings, the house finance chair, said he is staying busy even as the pace at the legislature slows while budget negotiators continue their work.

"It's something all the time. It's a pretty hectic pace and a pretty busy job," Hastings said. "I normally get here about 7 a.m. every morning and the first thing I do, I start out trying to respond to emails and telephone calls. We also have to spend a lot of time reading and studying because a $20 billion budget is pretty voluminous."

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