Once Stacey Abrams became the state House minority leader in 2011, she began collecting daily payments from the state at almost twice the rate of her predecessor — and more than twice the rate of other members of the General Assembly — records show.
A ranking of lawmakers by the number of days they were paid $173 to work outside of legislative sessions placed Abrams — the Democratic nominee for governor — at the top from 2011 to 2013. Her numbers fell in following years, but never out of the top 5 in the House.
In that first three years on the job, she collected in the neighborhood of $25,000 in per diem, on top of her part-time salary of $18,000-$19,000 a year, according to records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Abrams spokeswoman Priyanka Mantha said the candidate kept a busy schedule as minority leader.
“As leader of the House Democratic Caucus,” Mantha said, “Abrams was the only Democrat in the chamber serving both the constituents in her district and Georgians statewide.
“As such, she received a per diem that allowed her to do the work of serving constituents, traveling around the state to sign Georgians up for the Affordable Care Act, leading statewide efforts against gerrymandering, and engaging in committee work to discuss issues like job creation and public education.
“She was reimbursed for that work, much like the speaker of the House receives a salary for similar efforts.”
But her numbers surprised some of her colleagues who had trouble understanding why she filed paperwork to be paid for work far more often than Republican leaders, her Democratic counterpart in the Senate or busy committee chairmen.
“It’s crystal clear that former Representative Abrams at the very least abused her privilege and gouged the taxpayers over the several years in question,” said longtime state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, the chairman of the House Judicial Non-Civil Committee. Abrams, a lawyer, served on Golick’s committee.
Being a state lawmaker is considered a part-time job, and the pay is in the range of $17,000 to $20,000, depending on whether the lawmaker is a member of the House or Senate leadership. The exceptions are the House speaker and Senate president — the lieutenant governor — who both receive more than $90,000 a year.
Rank-and-file lawmakers have long complained about the low pay, and a committee last year recommended a big raise in part to attract more good candidates and keep stellar lawmakers from quitting because they say that can’t afford to serve. But the proposal went nowhere in 2018’s election-year session.
Under House and Senate rules, lawmakers can file for per diem — or daily expenses — when they work on state business in the off season. That can include a legislative committee meeting, attending community gatherings or working to solve constituent problems.
Historically, lawmakers in leadership positions — a House or Senate majority leader or, in Abrams’ case, a minority leader — have fairly unlimited use of per diem days. Rank-and-file members have limits: in the House, 10 days a year outside of sessions, other than for committee meetings or special events.
The system received little notice until 2003, when the AJC reported that the chairman of a committee that almost never meets had been paid for more than 200 days of outside-the-session per diem over a two-year period.
Then-Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, was indicted in 2013 on charges the former Rules Committee chairman intentionally claimed bogus per diem and reimbursement payments from the state. Balfour was acquitted of the charges and chalked up the erroneous filings for reimbursements to honest mistakes.
Balfour said the state probably owed him money for the extra time he worked for his constituents without being paid. Former Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, a Tyrone Republican who is now a Capitol lobbyist, agrees that some lawmakers do plenty of state business for which they don’t receive per diem.
“It’s misnomer to say members are part of a part-time, citizens legislature,” Chance said.
Legislative sessions last 40 working days. But with weekends, breaks and committee days, the session usually runs from early January to the end of March.
Abrams’ predecessor as minority leader, DuBose Porter, averaged about 60 per diem days outside of legislative sessions in the three years before he left the General Assembly after a failed bid for governor in 2010. He took 87 days in 2010.
The next year, when Abrams took over, she was paid $26,815 for 155 workdays outside of the session — about five months’ worth — according to state records. She was paid for 144 days in 2012 and 141 in 2013.
By contrast, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, who monitors the state budget and spending year-round, averaged 68 days, less than half of Abrams’ numbers. The House and Senate majority leaders also took far fewer per diem days.
Abrams’ counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Steven Henson, D-Stone Mountain, averaged 22 paid per diem days outside of the session during his first six years on the job. Abrams averaged 107 days during that same period.
There are some differences. The House Democratic caucus is more than three times the size of the Senate Democratic caucus. Most of the House and Senate leaders don’t live near the Capitol, while Abrams lives in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta, a 10-minute drive from the statehouse. That makes it easier to come to the Capitol to work.
Henson said he doesn’t take per diem pay unless he works at the Capitol, even though he frequently attends community events related to his position.
“Being minority leader almost doubles your workload from being a regular state senator,” Henson said. “Stacey is very engaged and hardworking, so she probably has more days than a lot of people.
“I reserve my per diems for when I go to the Capitol and work on something that is state or Senate business,” he said.
House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, who took a combined 65 per diem days in his first two full years leading the biggest caucus in the General Assembly, has a similar policy.
“I want to be a good steward of the public trust,” Burns said. “I want to make sure I combine as much as I can during a day at the Capitol. I make a very conscious effort that if I am tending to our caucus business, that is not a (paid) per diem day. If I am coming to the Capitol and on politics, I don’t take a day.”
Abrams’ camp says she had a much greater responsibility to help rebuild the Democratic Party and represent its interests than previous minority leaders. The Democrats overwhelmingly lost every statewide race in 2010.
She traveled the state in 2011 and held town hall meetings and other events to talk about the impact of redistricting in hopes of mitigating the damage to her party at a time when Republicans were carving up Democratic-controlled districts, including hers.
They said she continued to travel the state over the next few years pushing the Democratic agenda and helping get eligible Georgians signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And unlike the House speaker, they said, she had little staff. They said her per diem days dropped once she was able to obtain more funding for staff.
Still, Golick said Abrams’ comparing her job as the leader of the Democrats in the House to that of House Speaker David Ralston or Republican leaders is specious.
“Members of the minority party don’t have any high-level responsibilities or decision-making authority that would even remotely entail the outrageously high number of per diem payments that she collected from the taxpayers,” he said.
“Some things never change: Corrupt politicians using taxpayer funds as their own personal slush fund while arrogantly thinking that the rules and laws don’t apply to them,” he said. “It just further erodes public trust.”
But Abrams’ predecessor, Porter — now chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia — said she doesn’t deserve the criticism. He noted that Brian Kemp, her GOP opponent, is pulling down a $130,000 full-time salary as secretary of state while running for governor.
“For anyone to criticize Stacey Abrams while Brian Kemp collects a salary while campaigning seven days a week for governor is absurd,” he said. “Stacey was one of the hardest working people in the Legislature.
“As the first minority leader serving when there was no statewide elected Democrat, whose first year also involved extensive work on redistricting and holding meetings on Medicaid expansion and saving rural hospitals, she expanded the role as leader beyond her predecessors.”