Scott Mooneyham: Sophomores move to top of effectiveness rankings

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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.

Capitol Press Association