Legislative effectiveness: Lots to consider, but voters make final call

May. 10, 2014 @ 08:42 AM

Citizens can think about the effectiveness of their legislators in a variety of ways.  Rep. Larry Hall, from the Durham delegation, is the Democratic minority leader in the N.C. House of Representatives.  Rep. Mickey Michaux has served more terms than anyone else in the House. 

The six legislators in the delegation have a combined 70 years of institutional memory among them.  But they don’t rank highly in the legislative effectiveness rankings released recently by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Historically, the key factors in a higher effectiveness ranking are being in the majority party, length of service, being chair of a committee and skill in moving legislation.

With Republicans holding a supermajority in both the House, 77-43, and in the Senate, 33-17, it is not surprising that Republicans claimed the top 15 spots in the N.C. House of Representatives and the top 16 spots in the N.C. Senate.  Speaker of the House Thom Tills (R-Mecklenburg) and President Pro Tem of the Senate Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) top the rankings.

The 2013 rankings also show many second-term Republicans, those elected in 2010 when Republicans gained control of the legislature, establishing their positions in the House and Senate.  Second-term Republicans in the 50-member Senate jumped an average of 11 spots in the rankings, while second-term Republicans in the 120-member House went up an average of 27 places.

The largest jumps in the House, however, were made by Democrats.  Hall, the House Democratic leader who is in his fourth term, jumped 49 spots from 72nd to 23rd.  African American legislators hold more seats than ever before, and they now comprise 18 percent of the House and 20 percent of the Senate.  There are more black Democrats than white Democrats in both houses.

But several long-term lawmakers from Durham, all of whom are Democrats, dropped in the rankings.  In the House, Rep. Mickey Michaux, who has served more than 17 terms, dropped seven spots from 38th to 45th.  Michaux ranked third in 2009, when the Democrats held a majority in the legislature and he served as senior chair on the House Appropriations committee.  Rep. Paul Luebke  ranks 87th, down from 83rd in 2011 and 11th in 2009.  Sen. Valerie Foushee (D-Orange), who was a first-term representative before taking retired Sen. Ellie Kinnaird’s seat in September, ranks 116th as a House member in the survey.

Survey respondents ranked Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) 35th, up four spots from 39th.  Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham), who is in his first term in the General Assembly, ranks 40th.

The Center also released new rankings of legislators’ attendance and participation in recorded votes during the 2013 session, which are also important measures for evaluating legislators.  McKissick was one of six senators with perfect attendance during the 2013 session, attending session on all 106 days.  Woodard tied for 47th in attendance, with absences on 17 days. 

Hall was one of 21 representatives with perfect attendance, and Michaux was absent part of one day last year, his first absence in six sessions.  Luebke tied for 92nd, with absences on eight days, and Foushee tied for 45th, missing three days while serving in the House.

The Center’s legislative effectiveness rankings, which have been conducted bi-annually since 1977, are based on survey responses from the legislators themselves, registered lobbyists and capital news media who cover state government.  These three groups are asked to rate each legislator’s effectiveness on the basis of participation in committee work, skill at guiding bills through committee and in floor debates, and general knowledge or expertise in special fields.

The survey respondents also are asked to consider the respect legislators command from their peers, the legislator’s ethics, the enthusiasm with which the legislator executes various legislative responsibilities, the political power they hold (by virtue of office, longevity or personal skills), their ability to sway the opinions of fellow legislators and their aptitude for the overall legislative process.  The surveys were conducted by the Center in October, November and December 2013, and include responses based on the 2013 legislative long session. 

Several lawmakers in the Durham delegation were able to shepherd legislation through the General Assembly even though they are in the minority party.  Hall was a primary sponsor of House Bill 610, a bipartisan effort that now allows in-stand beer sales at Durham Bulls games and other stadiums.  Luebke and Foushee were the primary sponsors of House Bill 305, which addresses economic development projects in Chapel Hill.  Michaux was a primary sponsor for House Bill 311, which passed the House and proposes a state constitutional amendment to remove the literacy test language from our state constitution. 

Senators McKissick and Woodard were the primary sponsors of Senate Bill 316, which passed unanimously in both chambers and creates a presumption against the pretrial release of defendants charged with certain firearms offenses.

The Center now publishes five different legislative performance indicators: effectiveness, attendance, voting participation, success in getting bills passed, and votes on the most significant bills of the session. 

But citizens play the most important role in evaluating the effectiveness of our legislators, voting them in or out in the next election. 

Paige Worsham is an attorney and policy analyst and Mebane Rash is director of law & policy with the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.