OPINION: Crazy idea here - Give legislators a pay raise

06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Senators throw paper in the air as the legislative session comes to an end in the Senate Chambers on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Senators throw paper in the air as the legislative session comes to an end in the Senate Chambers on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

OK, excuse me while I get this out of the way and spout an opinion that is unpopular and bordering on screwy: Our friends in the state legislature could use a pay raise.

I know, the Georgia state legislature is often a running punchline, lampooned as the playground of the egomaniacal and ineffectual.

You’ve certainly heard the old truism that “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”

But there’s also the saying that you get what you pay for and members of the state House and Senate earn an annual salary of $17,341, which was set in 2007.

“We make less than the people at McDonald’s,” said longtime Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from Midway, which is south of Savannah. “I’ve been here 20 years and there hasn’t been a serious discussion” for a pay hike.

In fact, when he was first elected in 2002, legislators made $16,200. That’s some serious wage stagnation.

Williams, who is retired, has urged his colleagues to grow a spine and afford themselves a raise. “I’d like to see us do it,” he told me. “But legislators will never give themselves a pay raise, even though most want one.”

The ranks of the legislature, he said, skew to favor the retired, the wealthy or those with jobs that can cut them loose for the annual three-month playdate. Those with young families or working folks in their prime earning years are reluctant to make a go of it.

“You lose a lot of young people because of the salary,” Williams said.

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03/08/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Governor House Floor Leader Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) revives a congratulatory hand shake from Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), right, after the House passed HB 479 in the House Chambers during crossover day in the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 8, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

03/08/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Governor House Floor Leader Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) revives a congratulatory hand shake from  Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), right, after the House passed HB 479 in the House Chambers during crossover day in the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 8, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
03/08/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Governor House Floor Leader Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) revives a congratulatory hand shake from Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), right, after the House passed HB 479 in the House Chambers during crossover day in the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 8, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

I may note that legislators last year quietly got a 43% increase in their per diem from $173 to $247. That is what they get for each of the 40 days of the legislative session and for additional hearings or votes at the Capitol during the year. Per diems may add another $10,000 into their pockets, which is a fine for those living near Atlanta and can sleep in their own beds and cook their own meals. It’s not so great for guys like Williams, who sleeps 250 miles from home and must actually spend that money to live.

Also, legislators would share in on the $5,000 pay bump going to all state employees this year under a spending plan that has passed both the House and Senate.

The reasons for the reluctance to increase their own pay is obvious: Why hand a prospective political opponent a club to beat you with? You can almost see the campaign attack ads featuring a grainy black and white photo of the offending politician and a voiceover saying that Senator So and So is a self-dealer looking to soak the little guy.

The public has shifted from skeptical to cynical to outright hostile to those in the political realm.

In an attempt to give his colleagues a little cover, Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Republican from Woodstock, is sponsoring legislation that would send the matter to the voters of Georgia.

“I have felt very alone in this effort,” he said. “Everyone is scared to touch this.”

Cantrell is braver than his legislative brethren on this issue because he’s soon to become an ex-state rep. He’s retiring after four terms at the Capitol and will go back to full-time pastoring.

He insists he had no idea what the salary of legislators was when he took the job eight years ago and “was embarrassed when I found out.” He wants to put it to the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment because, he said, “it’s a conflict of interest to vote yourself a pay raise.”

Cantrell said studies show that the work performed by a Georgia legislator is equal to about two-thirds of a full-time job. (Punchline here.) Therefore Cantrell’s amendment would have legislators earn 60% of the median household income for Georgians, about $36,000 a year.

Wording in referendums is a true artform, usually set to steer voters to the affirmative: You love your momma, right?

This one follows that path, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to restrict the ability of the General Assembly to increase the salary of state Senators and Representatives and establish a standard salary for such individuals equal to 60 percent of the median household income in Georgia?”

The wording “restrict the ability of the General Assembly to increase the salary of state Senators and Representatives” is set to bring forth a guttural, “Hell, yeah!” The rest is largely a blur.

Does more money bring better legislators? Well, the research is all over the place.

A study of European Parliament members concluded that “a salary increase led to politicians with less education.” The researchers said this was a bad thing, but you might end up getting more working stiffs and less lawyers. And how is that bad?

Another looked at Italian mayors and found the opposite, that “a higher wage attracts more educated candidates and that better-paid politicians size down the government machinery by improving efficiency.”

One study from professors in Canada and California found that “politician salary has no significant impact on corruption” and the “effect of increasing politician salary on selection and performance is likely be small for the U.S.”

And a Missouri professor said voters get fewer candidates when pay is lower. He even used Georgia as an example, saying “state lawmakers earn less than $18,000 annually and 80 percent of legislative seats go uncontested, meaning one of the two major parties fails to field a candidate.”

Actually, the prof might be off on that one. We’re just really good at partisan gerrymandering here.

But showing legislators a little more financial love might help improve the lot. And if they don’t get better, they’ll be a bit happier when we beat up on them.

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