A $5,000 raise for Georgia lawmakers? Not so fast, Senate says

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery (R - Vidalia). Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

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Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery (R - Vidalia). Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The $5,000 pay raise that Gov. Brian Kemp proposed for state employees would also boost the pay of lawmakers, judges and statewide elected officials.

The Georgia House went along with the plan. Senate leaders are balking.

The midyear budget that Senate leaders approved Monday includes the cost-of-living raise for most state employees. But it removes $3,750 of the $5,000 that lawmakers, statewide elected officials and judges would receive, maintaining that it is an unconstitutional bonus because of the way raises would be handed out.

The midyear budget runs through June 30.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, also isn’t making any promises his chamber will back lawmaker pay raises in the budget for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1.

“We haven’t taken up that budget yet,” Tillery said.

Pay raises for lawmakers is a touchy subject, particularly in an election year. All 236 General Assembly seats are on the ballot this year. Some lawmakers fear voting for a pay raise will ensure their defeat at the polls, even though members of the House and Senate are only paid $17,342 a year, plus a per diem allowance.

Bills to raise legislative pay have failed to gain any traction for several years.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that a committee of chamber leaders last year quietly raised the allowance lawmakers receive for days they are at the Capitol or in committee meetings by 42.7%, from $173 to $247 per day.

The per diem hadn’t been increased since 2006. If a lawmaker only collected per diem for the 40 days of a regular legislative session — most get it for more days — the change would result in about a $3,000-a-year increase.

But that was done without a publicized vote of the full General Assembly. Raising the base pay of lawmakers — which can’t be done by a small group of House and Senate leaders — has been nearly impossible politically.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has been a champion of raising the base pay of lawmakers, saying the low salaries they receive limit who can run for office.

“I don’t know of anyone who wants a legislative chamber to be made up exclusively of people that are independently wealthy or they’re retired,” he said last year.

When Kemp proposed a $5,000 cost-of-living raise for state employees, it wasn’t mentioned that it would include state lawmakers, raising their base pay from $17,342 to $22,342.

The Georgia House on Feb. 10 passed the midyear budget with the raises without mentioning it either.

But Tillery said there is a hitch.

Because Kemp wanted the COLA to begin late in this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the plan is for employees to receive $3,750 as a kind of bonus payment in April, and the rest in May and June as a pay raise.

The state can legally give one-time bonus payments to state employees. Tillery says under state law, it can’t give bonuses to statewide elected officials, judges and some other officials, including lawmakers.

So the Senate Appropriations Committee cut the $3,750 for lawmakers, statewide elected officials and judges from its version of the midyear budget.

Tillery, a lawyer, said he spent last week calling judges to let them know the Senate would not approve the full $5,000 raise for them in this year’s budget.

Lawmakers could pass a bill allowing for such payments, Tillery said.

But he added, “There is not going to be an appetite for that. I will not be passing that bill.”

A House spokesman declined to comment but added he expected there to be discussion on the issue in coming weeks.


WHAT LAWMAKERS EARN

Annual base pay: $17,341. Lawmakers are proposing a $5,000 raise.

Daily allowance: $247 a day. The Legislative Services Committee raised the allowance from $173 last year.