State lawmakers quietly got a raise last year without voting on it

Georgia Senate approves map that may give Republicans more seats

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Georgia Senate approves map that may give Republicans more seats

Some state lawmakers have long complained about their low pay, saying it inhibits average Georgians from serving in the General Assembly.

But voting for increased pay is considered politically toxic at the Capitol, with many lawmakers fearing they could be voted out of office for raising their own salaries.

So 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%, increasing the cost of every day of the General Assembly session by about $17,500.

Over the course of the 40-day session, it will boost the cost of the allowance — known as a per diem or per-day payment — by $700,000 this year.

The per diem hadn’t changed since 2006, and lawmakers’ base pay of $17,341 remains on the low end nationally.

The Georgia House included itself in the $5,000 pay raise it approved for all state employees last week, but it’s unclear whether the Senate — which has several members running for higher office this year — will go along with that.

Last summer, the Legislative Services Committee — which sets the per diem — avoided making lawmakers vote on legislation to hike their own pay. It instead raised the allowance from $173 to $247 per day.

If a legislator only collects a per diem for the 40-day session, that raised his or her combined salary and per diem from roughly $24,000 to $27,000. If the Senate approves the latest pay raise, that would go to $32,000.

Many legislators receive per diem out of session as well.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, a member of the committee, said the move was made to address the increased costs lawmakers face in doing their job.

“We’re part-time legislators,” Dugan said. “We understand we shouldn’t get full-time pay for a part-time job. But this is the most full-time part-time job any of us have ever had.”

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, who has pushed bills to raise legislator pay, said she didn’t even notice the increase. She said she’d continue to back legislation to raise pay.

“I will always think we need to be paid more than we are paid,” Seay said, noting that Alabama lawmakers are paid three times what Georgia legislators receive. “The people in my district can’t believe what we make.”

Seay’s most recent bill, Senate Bill 252, would raise lawmakers’ base pay 70% — to just under $30,000 a year —and increase the salaries of statewide elected officials. It was voted down in the Senate last year by the Republican majority.

Her proposal came out of a 2017 compensation study that said lawmakers and many statewide elected officials were underpaid. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, endorsed the pay raises the week before Senate Republicans voted it down.

“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 at the time.

Besides the raises, salaries and per diems in the future would have been indexed to inflation so lawmakers wouldn’t have to vote on them.

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.

But passing pay raises is always tricky political business. Lawmakers face reelection contests every two years, and opponents are typically quick to bring up a legislator’s vote on pay raises.

“My colleagues seem to think if you raise your pay, then the public is going to be upset and not vote you back in,” Seay said.

Some lawmakers say constituents think they earn the same as a member of Congress — $174,000 a year.

Dugan said the majority in the Senate oppose a straight pay increase, even though he acknowledges a lawmaker with a family misses out on a lot being in session three months and then serving constituents the rest of the year.

While lawmakers acknowledge they knew the pay was low when they signed up to run for office, Seay, a 21-year veteran of the General Assembly, said the job is far from part time now.

“When I leave here at Sine Die (the session’s end), my phone doesn’t stop ringing,” Seay said. “You don’t stop being a senator. It’s part-time full-time employment.”

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.