OPINION: At the Georgia Legislature, you get what you pay for. So pay more

The idea of Georgia lawmakers raising their own pay was such a dud last year that state Rep. Al Williams, a Baptist deacon, had to pull out all the stops during a speech in the House chamber to make the case for a pay raise for himself and his colleagues.

He quoted the Bible. He told them to be statesmen. Do it for the pride of the General Assembly, he said. Have some guts.

“If you want me to, I’ll hold your hand,” he said.

The salary for Georgia state lawmakers is $17,342 per year, a figure that hasn’t budged in more than a decade.

The Midway Democrat argued that without a boost, the state House and Senate will eventually include only “the super-rich, the dirt poor, and those who are retired and don’t have anything else to do,” he said, adding. “Most of you know I’m right.”

Count me as someone who thinks Williams was right. Even though lawmakers are officially required to be in the Capitol about three months per year, legislators will privately tell you that between constituent work and public events, they’re working much more than that. With pay as low as the Georgia General Assembly’s, they usually end up losing money compared to the jobs they hold the rest of the year.

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Those who can afford to lose the money and set their own schedules, including lawyers, doctors, and the independently wealthy, frequently run for and stay in office.

But they are not representative of the voters who elected them.

Parents of young children, especially moms, usually make one calculation of whether or not to take any job — whether the salary would at least cover the cost of child care during the day.

After taxes, Georgia lawmakers’ salaries barely cover that. In some cases, lawmakers are making less than their babysitters.

That’s certainly one reason why just 34% of Georgia lawmakers are women and even fewer have young children at home.

It’s also why you don’t meet many plumbers-lawmakers at the Capitol. Or history teachers. Or regular working people on either side of the aisle who could inform the policies of the state from the perspective of a working or middle-class salaried employee, as most Georgians are.

The make-up of the Legislature doesn’t just affect the laws being passed today. It also affects the choices Georgians have for higher office, since the Legislature is often a proving ground for rising stars.

The slates of candidates for higher office are inevitably drawn from the Legislature, including for 2022.

Compared to other elected officials, Georgia lawmakers are paid far less than the $174,000 members of Congress earn. Atlanta City Council members make an annual salary of $60,300, while members of the Atlanta Board of Education will soon get $22,500 per year after voting raise their own pay recently.

Nationwide, salaries for Georgia senators and representatives rank in the bottom 20% in the country, according to data complied by the National Council of State Legislatures.

The highs and lows are extreme — California and New York get more than $110,000, while New Hampshire pays $100 per year and New Mexico pays nothing at all. But Alabama legislators get $51,734 annually. Floridians make more than Georgians, too — about $30,000.

But all the arguments in the world haven’t persuaded Georgia representatives to raise their own pay .

And even Williams’ speech in the House was greeted by a combination of silence, uncomfortable laughter, and a handful of cheers.

Two bills are now pending to increase legislators’ salaries, including a measure to take the question of lawmakers’ pay out of the hands of the General Assembly. If it passes this session, the 2022 ballot will put the question to voters to decide. They seem like the right people to ask about the pay for public servants.

The bill from outgoing state Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, would set the annual compensation at 60% of the median pay of Georgians, making it about $36,000 a year, and then have the salary float with median income there after. Rising incomes would reward lawmakers. Declining incomes would apply to them, as well.

Cantrell told the AJC’s James Salzer he decided on the 60% figure because a study showed lawmakers do the work equivalent to two-thirds of a full-time job. Some, like committee chairs and leaders, work nearly full time.

“This is about a fair pay scale for the work we do,” Cantrell said.

Boosting the pay of the 236 voting members of the House and Senate would cost taxpayers about $4.4 million. It’s not nothing, but it could go a long way toward making sure the people overseeing the state’s $30 billion-plus budget aren’t just the ones who can afford to lose money doing the job.

It’s politically popular these days to deride elected officials. It even feels good sometimes. But underpaying lawmakers has its own costs. And we’ll eventually drive out the people who can still relate to the lives of the voters who elect them.

Like sushi and gasoline, we will eventually get what we pay for at the General Assembly. So it’s time to raise the pay.