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Cut in part-time pay for Georgia legislators becomes political test

Georgia Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Georgia Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The state budget Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law this week that slashed spending didn’t contain furloughs for more than 100,000 state and university staffers, but it did include a pay cut for all 236 Georgia legislators and the lieutenant governor.

After long going without a raise in their $17,342 part-time salaries, the move irked some Democrats and immediately became a campaign talking point in the hotly contested battle for control of the Georgia House in the fall elections.

The majority Republicans, who pushed the 10% pay cut, said trimming their salaries helped reduce the need to furlough General Assembly staff.

Most state agencies took 10% budget cuts this fiscal year because of the downturn in the economy and drop in tax revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. The cut in legislator pay amounts to about $400,000 of the $2.2 billion lawmakers cut from the budget for the fiscal year that began Wednesday.

"We have an opportunity to be leaders," House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, told colleagues last week before the vote on the pay cut. "We have an opportunity to say, 'us first.' "

But Democrats said the low pay prevents most Georgians from being able to serve in the General Assembly.

"What you're doing by doing what you've been doing for 23 years is you are creating a Legislature where only two types of people will serve here: the very rich and the dirt poor," said Rep Al Williams, D-Midway. "Those who don't need it (the pay) and those for whom any money would be a pay raise."

Many Republicans, including House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have said in the past that while lawmakers are paid a part-time salary, it's a full-time job for many of them.

Lawmakers meet 40 official days each year, but they also have committee meetings and help constituents year-round. The leaders of the House and Senate budget committees spend hours poring over economic data in the off season and talking to agencies and groups about state funding. Legislators say they are frequently approached in the grocery store, at church or in restaurants by constituents who are looking for assistance on state and often federal issues.

Rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress are paid $174,000 a year, but it’s the $17,342-a-year state lawmakers who are sometimes the first to receive questions when a constituent has issues getting his or her federal Social Security checks.

State legislators have long cited the time commitment and low pay when they quit the General Assembly. Many wind up lobbying their former colleagues, making 10 or 20 times what they earned passing laws.

But by law, legislators also must vote on their own pay. In today’s hyperpolitical climate, it’s an issue many lawmakers try to avoid like a pandemic for fear of having it used against them at election time.

State lawmakers created a pay commission to look into the issue and it came back with a report in late 2017 recommending that legislators receive $12,000 raises and that statewide elected officials and the House speaker see their pay bumped up by $20,000 to $43,000.

The report gathered dust without any action being taken.

Ralston’s salary is currently about $99,000 a year, while Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the Senate president, makes about $92,000.

Lawmakers also can get health insurance through the State Health Benefit Plan for state employees and retirees, and they are eligible for a small pension.

Under the pay cut legislation — Senate Bill 416 — lawmaker salaries would temporarily drop 10% and Duncan's 14%. That reduction was factored into the state budget.

"We are in an ongoing economic and health crisis in Georgia, and Georgians are suffering," said Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, who shepherded the bill in the House. "This is an important message we send by taking this pay cut."

But critics have for decades pointed to the makeup of the citizen General Assembly to make their case that it isn’t particularly representative of the state. It has traditionally been heavily made up of lawyers, retirees and businesspeople who can take off January through the end of March to pass laws. There are exceptions, but it has historically been harder for, say, a teacher or rank-and-file worker in a business to take the time off, even if he or she can afford it.

"In order to have justice for all we need to have people who represent all of us," said House Minority Caucus Vice Chairwoman Erica Thomas, D-Austell, who listed her occupation as a nonprofit executive director the last time she filed a financial disclosure in 2017.

“For us to have people who represent all of us, that means authors, farmers, teachers, mothers, nurses, service workers, blue-collar workers,” she said. “If we want to represent everyone in the state of Georgia, then we should give everyone the right to be represented at this Capitol, not just lawyers and doctors.”

The bill passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly, but dozens of Democrats opposed it.

The political reaction was swift.

Less than two hours after the vote in the House, the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that puts money into electing GOP candidates in statehouse races, sent out a release blasting House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville. Trammell, who faces a Republican challenger in his re-election bid this fall, opposed the pay cut.

“Democrat Leader Bob Trammell just slapped every hardworking Georgian in the face — while their pockets and wallets are hurting, he couldn’t be bothered to give back 10% of his taxpayer-funded salary,” RSLC President Austin Chambers said.

With Georgia expected to be in play in the presidential contest and in two U.S. Senate races, state House Democrats have been targeting seats in hopes of taking back the chamber from Republicans. Ralston, state GOP leaders and groups such as the Republican State Leadership Committee are working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Williams said a vote on the legislator pay shouldn’t make a difference in November.

“If you are so weak in your district that you can’t raise your pay, truly you need to let your opponent come on down here,” Williams told colleagues last week. “Folks are not interested in that kind of weakness.

“I don’t see how it takes guts to cut 10% of $17,400.”