Capitol Recap: Georgia lawmakers’ paychecks to go unchanged

One of the casualties of this year's Crossover Day at the General Assembly was a Senate bill that would have given legislators and state officials significant raises. A similar bill in the House never even came up for a floor vote. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

One of the casualties of this year's Crossover Day at the General Assembly was a Senate bill that would have given legislators and state officials significant raises. A similar bill in the House never even came up for a floor vote. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Plan to boost legislators’ salaries hits a wall

Some major pieces of legislation — including an overhaul of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute — survived big tests on Crossover Day.

But other measures fell short that day when a bill typically needs to clear at least one chamber to have a chance at winning final approval this year at the General Assembly.

It’s really more a guideline than a hard rule: The end of Crossover Day marks the beginning of Frankenbill season, when pieces of legislation are often reanimated by sewing them on to thriving measures.

But one of the biggest measures that failed to make the Crossover Day leap — and one of the most likely to remain buried for the session — was a Senate bill seeking significant salary bumps for lawmakers and numerous state officials.

The raises proposed in Senate Bill 252 came out of a 2017 compensation study that said lawmakers and many statewide elected officials were underpaid.

Your average, everyday legislator stood to see a salary increase from $17,342 to $29,908 — a boost of more than 72% — starting in 2023. Their leaders would also be in line for a big raise. The House speaker’s salary would go from $99,000 to $135,000, while the lieutenant governor — who serves as the Senate president — would see a jump from about $92,000 to $135,000.

Raises of 40% or thereabouts were proposed for most other statewide elected officials. Gov. Brian Kemp, however, would have to be satisfied with the boost to $175,000 that the General Assembly gave to the state’s top officer in 2019.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was among the supporters, making a case that higher pay could diversify the membership.

“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,” Ralston said.

Others, however, said it just seemed like too much cash for a part-time job.

“We do fantastic work in this building. We do essential work, I believe, in this building,” said Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming. “But we are part-time legislators. I don’t believe any of us, no matter how hard we work at this job, wake up and go to work Monday through Friday, 9-5, 12 months of the year, to do this job.”

State lawmakers have often cited their salary as a reason for quitting. Many of them find the pay is much more lucrative — maybe 20 times better — lobbying their former colleagues.

But those lawmakers also know that voting to increase their pay is a good way to lose their job, which is why their salaries have not seen a significant jump in decades.

The Senate voted down the measure 33-20.

After the Senate bill crashed and burned, a House bill seeking the same pay bumps died without even getting a vote.

In-state tuition for immigrants fails to get a vote

Another bill that missed the Crossover Day deadline would have allowed young immigrants who have been granted a reprieve from deportation to pay in-state tuition at Georgia colleges and universities.

House Bill 120 would have applied to participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program, which the Obama administration created in 2012, grants renewable two-year work permits and temporary deportation deferrals to immigrants who were brought here before they turned 16, who are attending school here and who have no felony convictions.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, tried to sell the measure as addressing a “workforce development issue.”

“We have invested in these kids already through k-12 education,” Carpenter said in January when he proposed the bill.

As of 2019, 21,110 people in Georgia were participating in DACA.

But HB 120 never got a vote on the House floor.

About 30 Republicans strongly opposed the measure, which may have fallen victim to a disinformation campaign.

Critics, including conservative pundit Phil Kent, claimed it would attract immigrants who came to the country illegally.

But the measure specified that in-state tuition would be limited to students who are younger than 30, have been in the United States since at least 2013, and graduated from a Georgia high school or obtained Georgia GED diplomas.

It went on to state, “Nothing in this Code section shall be construed to require in-state tuition classification for individuals not lawfully present in Georgia.”

Carpenter wasn’t quite ready to call the legislation dead.

“The last time I checked, the Legislature stopped at Day 40 and not Day 28,” he said. “Any time Phil Kent wants to know the truth about the bill he can call me.”

Other bills that flopped on Crossover Day

Several other measures that drew lots of attention this session failed to get through the Crossover Day bottleneck. Here are a few of them:

Dozen election bills remain in play

As the General Assembly enters the final furlongs of this legislative session, a dozen election-related bills remain on course for the finish line March 31.

The biggest include measures that would end no-excuse absentee voting, limit weekend voting and set new requirements for ID for absentee voters.

That last of those items — which would require a driver’s license number, state ID number or copy of other identifying documents — appears to be the one that’s found the most agreement in the House and Senate.

The ID requirements were even cited as a reason a pair of Republican senators gave for hitting the exits when Senate Bill 241 — the bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting — came up for a vote on Crossover Day.

In an email, state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick of Marietta said she supported much of SB 241 while opposing the elimination of no-excuse absentee voting, “especially since we have strengthened voter ID” for obtaining the mail-in ballot.

“For that reason, I was not comfortable voting for it, but I wanted the bill to move forward in the process and get to a compromise bill” with the House, Kirkpatrick said.

Sounding much like Kirkpatrick was state Sen. Brian Strickland of McDonough, who said he tried to get the provision that would halt no-excuse absentee voting stricken from SB 241.

“I support the remaining portions of the bill and am happy the measure is moving forward so we can come together and pass a bill that increases security and transparency in our election process while continuing to protect the right to vote,” he said.

Two other GOP senators who were excused from the vote on SB 241, John Albers of Roswell and Chuck Hufstetler of Rome, could not be reached for comment.

Republicans — after experiencing their first presidential loss in Georgia since 1992 in November and then being swept in the state’s U.S. Senate runoffs in January — have pushed numerous restrictions on voting during the session. Following the lead of former President Donald Trump, they have raised doubts about the security of the voting process while not questioning their own wins in November.

A pair of consultants, in a bipartisan effort, suggest that Republicans should be wary about how the consequences of their proposals could affect them at the ballot box.

Fair Fight, the voting rights group that Democrat Stacey Abrams formed in 2018 following her loss in the race for governor, is hardly a popular source of information for Republicans. But the group put out a memo, written by a pair of political strategists, Democrat Dylan Sumner and Republican Mark Zubaly, that examined state laws related to no-excuse absentee voting and compared the election success of each party in those states.

“Despite a flood of misinformation and partisan rhetoric,” Sumner and Zubaly wrote, “the numbers prove that no-excuse vote by mail (VBM) benefits both parties, and both should push laws that make vote-by-mail more accessible.”

Here’s a quick summary of the election bills still in play at the General Assembly:

House adds new member in final days

On Day 29 of the 40-day legislative session, voters in parts of DeKalb, Henry and Rockdale counties elected a new member of the state House.

Angela Moore defeated former state Rep. Stan Watson in a special election runoff to represent House District 90.

Moore, a public relations specialist and cooking instructor, received about 59% of the nearly 3,000 votes cast, according to unofficial results from the secretary of state’s website.

The House seat opened up when longtime state Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Lithonia, withdrew her candidacy last year.

Moore and Watson ran in the runoff after finishing as the top two vote-getters among six Democratic candidates in a Feb. 9 special election.

Georgia's tax collections were up 43% in February over the same month in 2020. But it gets complicated. (lamprey / E+ / Getty Images)

Credit: lamprey

icon to expand image

Credit: lamprey

Stat of the Week: State revenue up 43% in February, but ...

February may be the shortest month, but it had a big impact on Georgia’s tax collections. They were up 43% over the same month in 2020.

But there’s a catch.

At the direction of the Internal Revenue Service, in response to the COVID-19 lockdown and pandemic recession, Georgia delayed the filing date for state income taxes.

That means income tax refunds in February were way below those processed in February 2020. Those refunds will likely come in March and April, which will probably skew their figures in a negative way.

State lawmakers expect refunds to be much larger, too. The state withheld taxes on the bonus unemployment payments that the federal government included to help those who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Officials say much, if not most, of the money that the state withheld will likely go back to those filers.