“Legislators, in an election year, have one thing on their mind, and that’s to get re-elected,” said Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, who sponsored both legislator pay and pension bills in the 2022 session. “If they think something can in any way be used against them, they will oppose it.”
But the low pay is often cited by younger and midcareer professionals when they quit the General Assembly after a few years. They say they can’t afford to serve as a legislator while raising a family. Many wind up lobbying their former colleagues, making 10 or 20 times what they earned making laws.
Other Georgians don’t even consider running for much the same reason. That and the fact that they have to be away from their jobs from early January until the end of March or so for General Assembly sessions.
“Right now, 99% of people are eliminated (from running) because of the pay and the schedule,” said Cantrell, who is leaving the Georgia House this year after serving four terms.
In search of new perspectives
The General Assembly is heavy on retirees, lawyers and people who have businesses they can leave for three months a year.
“I would like to see a school teacher be able to serve in the General Assembly, I would like to see a police officer serve in the General Assembly,” said Cantrell, a minister.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
When Cantrell’s resolution asking voters to set higher legislator pay got to the Georgia Senate on the final night of the 2022 session, Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, an Episcopal priest, had much the same message. “This helps bring more diversity to our chambers when we can raise the compensation,” she said.
Cantrell’s resolution failed, but another measure raising the pensions lawmakers are eligible to receive when they retire was the last bill to pass the General Assembly session. The budget lawmakers passed included a cost-of-living raise for state employees, including lawmakers.
This time last year, state lawmakers were paid $17,342 a year. They received a $173 daily allowance when they were in session, in committee meetings, or doing other authorized legislative work. Their pension was $36 a month for each year they served in the General Assembly.
Since then, the pay has been boosted to $22,342 a year, the per diem to $247, and the pension to $50 a month per year served. Lawmakers also get highly coveted state health insurance benefits.
Cantrell’s failed resolution would have put the base pay closer to $36,000.
With the changes approved in the past year, the average Georgia lawmaker will collect in the range of $34,000-$39,000 a year in pay and per diems, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution calculation based on figures released by the state fiscal office, an arm of the General Assembly.
That’s far less than the base pay in Alabama, where lawmakers earn $51,734. The national average, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, is $39,216 in pay, plus expense money or per diems offered to lawmakers in many states.
Some of their constituents, lawmakers say, think they get the same pay as members of Congress: $174,000 a year. But that is changing, said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, and that may be one of the reasons legislators were less worried about raising their pay this year.
“Constituents are starting to realize we don’t get paid $174,000 a year like members of Congress do,” said England, who is not running for re-election this year. “When they find out what we make, they say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You put up with that job for that (amount)?”
England also cited high turnover for the willingness of lawmakers to back pay and pension hikes, with many legislators running for higher, better-paying offices this year or just quitting.
“We’ve got to figure out something to make it worthwhile to keep people from leaving,” he said.
Neither the base pay nor the per diem for lawmakers had increased since the mid-to-late 2000s, and efforts to make any changes have failed to gain traction, despite the support of powerful lawmakers like House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
A state compensation commission in 2017 compared Georgia’s pay to that of other states and recommended base pay be raised from $17,342 to $29,908.
“Legislators take time away from their professional duties and other responsibilities to serve our state, and the base compensation should not be set so low that it deters many qualified people from seeking public office,” said Marshall Guest, a member of the commission and a former legislative aide who is now a senior vice president at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “We want Georgians from all walks of life represented under the Gold Dome and today’s pay structure makes that difficult.”
Several bills have been filed since 2017 to match those recommendations or come close. They’ve either been voted down or never gotten that far.
Opponents say lawmakers knew what the pay was when they decided to run for office, and they stress a desire to maintain a citizen General Assembly, where legislators meet in Atlanta, pass laws and a state budget and then go home to their communities, their jobs and lives.
Cantrell gets that. “As an average Georgia citizen, I don’t want a full-time legislature. The longer they are down there, the worse it is sometimes,” he said.
But he’d also like the compensation to be enough that more Georgians could afford to take a break from their job and serve a few terms.
While there are full-time and part-time legislatures in the U.S., Cantrell said the National Conference of State Legislatures considers Georgia as a hybrid, where lawmakers work about two-thirds of a full-time job. His failed constitutional amendment would have asked voters to set legislator pay at 60% of the median household income in Georgia.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, was among the senators who helped defeat the proposal.
“It would have been around a 50% increase in pay and that didn’t sit well with me at a time when I don’t think Georgia families were seeing a 50% increase in pay,” Tillery said. “To me, it was too much, too quickly.
“We’re still a part-time Legislature and as long as we are a part-time Legislature, I think we should have part-time pay.”
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, heads the House committee that approved Cantrell’s pay resolution. He is a dentist in a practice with his son. He said when he got elected in 2007, he thought the $17,342 a year salary was reasonable for three months of lawmaking.
“But now that I’ve been here, the reality is we’re working all the time,” Hawkins said during hearings on Cantrell’s bill. “We don’t have a lot of health care people (in the Legislature) because if we take three months out of our practice, that means we don’t have a practice when we come back home.”
WHAT LAWMAKERS EARN
Annual base pay: $17,341 this session, going to $22,341 with the recently approved cost-of-living raise for state employees.
Daily allowance: $247 a day, up from $173 last year.
The base pay for legislators in surrounding states in 2021, excluding per diems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: