Some effective state senators won't be back

Several state senators the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research rates as most effective will not be returning to the General Assembly in 2011. They have either resigned or are not running for re-election.

Former majority leader Tony Rand (D-Cumberland), who ranked second, and David Weinstein (D-Robeson) have both accepted new jobs in the Perdue administration. Three other senators, David Holye (D-Gaston), R.C. Soles (D-Columbia) and Charles Albertson (D-Duplin) aren’t seeking re-election. All five have had long tenures in the legislature and all have consistently ranked in the effectiveness top 20.

The rankings are based on the responses to surveys filed out by legislators, registered lobbyists and reporters who cover government. Participants are asked to rate each legislator’s effectiveness on the basis of participation in committee work, skill at guiding bills through committees and in floor debates, and general knowledge or expertise in special fields.

The respondents also are asked to consider the respect legislators command from their peers, their ethics, 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.

This definition and concept of effectiveness could be considered a update on the the standard political axiom that decisions are made by those who show up. Decisions are made by those who show up – and play well with others.

While the center ranks how well the legislators perform, the rankings make no judgment on whether the performance is good or bad for the state or the people.

In addition to effectiveness, the center ranked legislators on voting and attendance.

“The rankings of attendance and voting participation tell citizens how often their legislator was there to represent them,” said Ran Coble, the center’s executive director. “The effectiveness rankings tell citizens how effective their legislator was when he or she was there. The surveys hold a mirror up to the legislature, and the rankings are the reflection.”

Coble said that the “shear weight” of the number or responses ensures the results are valid. In all, about 655 people are sent surveys and the responses are anonymous and kept confidential. More than half of the legislators and reporters and a third of the lobbysts responded to the surveys, well above the accepted statistical standards of statistical validity.

He emphasized that the effectiveness ratings have nothing to do with party, the subject matter of the legislation being considered, whether they are making new law or repealing old law, or whether or not the bill is passed. “That’s the beauty of measuring effectiveness,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Democrats dominate the rankings. President Pro-Tem Marc Basnight (D-Dare) is first in the Senate for a record-breaking ninth year and Speaker Joe Hackney (D-Orange) ranked first in the House. However, six of the 20 Republicans in the Senate finished in the top 22, including Minority Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Richard Stevens (R-Wake).

Freshman Senator Josh Stein (D-Wake) debuted in the rankings at 19, the highest for a first-time legislator.

Two senators and 21 representatives had perfect attendance, including Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), Bill Faison (D-Orange), and Mickey Michaux Jr. (D-Durham).

Neal Hunt (R-Wake) was one of three senators who voted in all 1,211 electronically-recorded roll call votes last year. Dollar was one of two House members who voted in all 1,375 votes electronically recorded in that chamber.

The center found that 42 of 50 senators and 113 of 120 representatives attended more than 90 percent of the days in session. “That’s an impressive attendance record for part-time legislators who have full-time jobs back home and many have to drive a great distance every week,” said Coble.

While there are nonpartisan groups who rank legislatures in several states, the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research ratings are “perhaps the most straightforward and most widely respected,” according to Governing magazine, published by Congressional Quarterly, Inc.

In non-election years, the center publishes another report that measures performance by two other criteria. One criteria is the number of bills a legislator introduces and the number they get passed. The other is how the voted on legislation the legislators themselves said where the 12 most important bills of the session.

The center is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research corporation created in 1977 to evaluate state government programs and to study public policy issues facing North Carolina. It does not endorse candidates.

The center is supported in part by a grant for general operating support from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, with additional support from 12 other private foundations, 120 corporate contributors, and about 500 individual and organizational members.