State lawmakers have complained for years about the low pay — $17,342 a year — and long hours they work in what is supposed to be a part-time job.
But the only way to raise their base salaries is to vote to do so, something seen as politically toxic, particularly in an election year such as 2022.
A bipartisan resolution sponsored by state Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, who isn’t seeking reelection this year, would put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall to take the issue out of the General Assembly’s hands.
If the resolution passes the General Assembly — it may be up for a vote in a committee next week — and is OK’d by voters in November, legislators would be paid 60% of the median household income of Georgians, starting in 2025.
Cantrell told the House Budget and Fiscal Oversight Committee on Wednesday that the proposal would raise legislative pay to about $36,000.
As the median income rises, so would legislative pay. It would go the other direction if it fell.
Cantrell said he decided on the 60% figure because a study showed lawmakers do the work equivalent to two-thirds of a full-time job. Some, such as the Legislature’s budget chairmen, work pretty much full time.
“This is about a fair pay scale for the work we do,” Cantrell said.
He said the General Assembly last received a cost-of-living raise in 2008. The midyear budget this session would raise legislative pay to $22,341, but the Senate has not yet approved the spending plan.
Alabama lawmakers’ salaries are tied to that state’s median income. Lawmakers there are paid $51,734 a year.
Cantrell, a minister, said Georgia’s low salary “limits how many Georgians can serve.”
The Legislature, he said, “is really made up of the haves and the have-nots.”
“I’d like to see a schoolteacher be able to serve in the General Assembly,” Cantrell said. “I’d like to be able to see a police officer serve in the General Assembly.
“Since I have been here, a lot of the best and the brightest have left.”
State Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, a lawyer who serves on the committee, acknowledged that “it’s very difficult to vote to raise your own salary.”
“The politics are huge,” McLaurin said, “but the policies are huge.”
He said many Georgians think state lawmakers are paid like members of Congress, who receive $174,000 a year.
Most committee members seemed to like Cantrell’s idea.
“I want everybody who wants to serve to be able to serve,” said state Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, a community volunteer.
“We are definitely in need of a raise, I am all for that,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, a lecturer at Emory University.
Bills to raise legislative pay have failed to gain any traction for several years. After those failures, legislative leaders tried a different tactic.
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.
The legislative base pay raise in Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget proposal wasn’t mentioned when the Georgia House on Feb. 10 passed the midyear budget.
The legislative base pay raise in Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget proposal — part of a larger proposal to increase pay for state workers and University System of Georgia employees by $5,000 — wasn’t mentioned when the Georgia House on Feb. 10 passed the midyear budget.
The Senate has now raised some questions, and whether lawmakers will receive the raise is up in the air.
WHAT LAWMAKERS EARN
Annual base pay: $17,342. Lawmakers are proposing a $5,000 raise.
Daily allowance: $247 a day. The Legislative Services Committee raised the allowance from $173 last year.