Georgia cost-cutting panel to pay staffer six-figure salary

Gov. Brian Kemp has created the Georgians First Commission to seek ways to cut business regulations and unnecessary bureaucracy. The “director of implementation” for the commission will have a salary of $175,000, the same amount that Kemp receives.

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Gov. Brian Kemp has created the Georgians First Commission to seek ways to cut business regulations and unnecessary bureaucracy. The “director of implementation” for the commission will have a salary of $175,000, the same amount that Kemp receives.

Brian Kemp reminded voters every chance he got during last year's race for governor that he wanted to cut business regulations and unnecessary bureaucracy, sometimes taking out a chain saw to emphasize his point.

But the new governor’s solution conflicts with his small-government ethos: He plans to create more government in order to reduce it. He recently started a new state office, called the Georgians First Commission, to cut regulation.

The governor’s pick as “director of implementation” for the commission is Scott Hilton, a banking executive and Gwinnett County Republican who lost a House seat in November. Hilton will get a $175,000 annual salary — the same amount that Kemp makes.

The governor’s critics see a contradiction in the making: Kemp’s promise to reduce government bureaucracy by creating a new layer of state government. State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said he’s not sure if “hypocritical is strong enough” to describe Kemp’s action.

“You can’t cut waste or regulations by throwing money at them or adding a level of government,” Williams said.

Kemp’s office said the commission’s work will pay dividends in the long run. And Kemp spokesman Cody Hall called Hilton a “highly qualified, experienced leader who will bring private-sector solutions” to state government.

‘Go after everything’

The commission is the latest move by Kemp to reshape the executive branch. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that six of Kemp's staffers earn at least $190,000 a year, with some making more than similar executives made under Gov. Nathan Deal's administration.

Kemp’s aides said that he is expecting more from his deputies in return for that higher pay through an overhaul that combined some executive positions with other roles to create a smaller overall footprint. The total his office paid in salaries at the beginning of the year was slightly smaller than Deal’s personnel budget when he became governor in 2011.

It’s not clear whether Hilton will be the only full-time staff assigned to the commission, which is tasked with outlining recommendations to streamline government and cut taxes. Kemp’s office would only say that every hire the governor makes is expected to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.

It’s also not yet known how quickly the new panel will yield results. Its final report isn’t due until June 2020 — months after next year’s legislative session ends — giving the governor limited time to put them into place before 2021. Pressed on the timing, Kemp said he may act on some suggestions earlier.

“I told them to go after everything,” Kemp said of his instructions to the commission members. “All bureaucracy and red tape.”

Kemp is treading on familiar territory. His ally, Sonny Perdue, created a new office called the Commission for a New Georgia shortly after he was elected governor in 2002. He put Lonice Barrett, a veteran state bureaucrat, in charge of the effort.

The office yielded several pieces of legislation designed to bring more efficiency to state government — as well as a $26 million budget request from Perdue two years later. The money was aimed at devising new ways to track state vehicles, implementing new hiring policies and other improvements.

At the time, Perdue’s adversaries howled that it was a waste of state funds, noting that the budget his commission was allocated exceeded about a dozen state agencies — including offices that regulate utilities, insurance and banking. State Rep. Bob Holmes, an Atlanta Democrat, called it the “beginning of his empire building.”

Perdue's administration said the changes paid off, estimating they wound up saving more than $150 million in taxpayer funds.

“Fresh eyes, new perspectives with real world knowledge make government better,” said John Watson, a former Perdue chief of staff who is now the chairman of the Georgia GOP. “I would expect any minimal overhead will be dwarfed by the ultimate economic growth and prosperity created.”

Deep ties

The Georgia First Commission’s membership is stocked with business executives with deep ties to Kemp. An AJC review of financial records showed that the 18 appointees and their families have combined to contribute more than $125,000 to Kemp’s statewide campaigns since 2010.

The two co-chairmen, Cade Joiner of Shred-X and James Whitley of Landmark Properties, have, together with their families, donated about $50,000 to Kemp campaigns.

Others are longtime political allies. Bobby Banks, an ex-Hall County commissioner, was one of Kemp's most outspoken supporters in his rival's home county during last year's GOP runoff. And Alec Poitevint is an influential Republican National Committee figure with close ties to the Perdue family.

All 18 are working without salary.

The new post also gives a prominent new platform to Hilton, who Kemp’s office said took a pay cut to take the state job.

The former SunTrust executive is one of about a dozen Republicans in Atlanta's suburbs to lose state legislative seats last year and is considered a potential candidate in Georgia's 7th Congressional District, which includes his hometown of Peachtree Corners.

He said his mission is to make Georgia "the most innovative and attractive state for small business," but he didn't rule out another bid for elected office.

The governor's critics will be carefully watching the commission's work. State Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, one of the leading House Democrats, said she appreciates that Kemp created a new office that will zero in on regulations that could hamper small businesses.

“That being said,” she added, “I think the regulations that come out of the office will decide whether he’s hypocritical — not the creation of the office itself.”

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