Matters of dollars and cents, what does legislation really cost?
Rest assured, the trusty bean counters at the R Street Institute and Newnan Times-Herald have been crunching the numbers, and have an answer. However, it may surprise you and have you demanding that lawmakers buckle down and focus on more important issues.
By way of background, Georgia legislators meet at least once a year for a 40-legislative day session in which they pass a budget, debate a host of bills and introduce a bevy of nonbinding resolutions. In the 2019-2020 regular legislative session, the governor signed 625 bills into law out of a total of 4,554 bills and resolutions filed by lawmakers—although not all were particularly serious endeavors.
These include pre-filed bills that lawmakers inexplicably failed to file formally. By law, pre-filed bills cannot be considered, only filed bills. So, why bother taking the time to draft and pre-file legislation if you don’t have the intention of ever filing? It boggles the mind, but to quote legendary pitchman Billy Mays, “wait, there’s more.”
Former Sen. Ellis Black introduced a measure not once, but twice, from 2019-2020 to make May 1 “Purebred Dog Day in Georgia.” Sorry mutts, but you apparently don’t deserve a day. Another lawmaker filed legislation to create the Georgia Tennis Foundation license plate. With such a narrow focus, I wonder when I should expect my “Weekly Columnist for the Newnan Times-Herald” license plate. I am being sarcastic, of course, but the costs of legislating are significant.
In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the Georgia Senate, House of Representatives, and joint General Assembly offices expended a grand total of $78,177,432, according to the governor’s annual budget report. The General Assembly’s operational costs include an array of expenditures from salaries for lawmakers and support staff, benefits, services and so forth.
However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that legislators’ salaries only make up a small portion of these expenses. They earn a meager salary of around $17,000—far below what other states pay their officials—and in many ways, it is really a thankless and time-consuming job.
Believe it or not, there’s a lot that goes into legislating. Lawmakers often rely on research specialists and legislative counsel to flesh out conceptual ideas and draft them into bill form. Then the legislation needs to be formally introduced, which requires assistance from the Clerk of the House and/or the Secretary of the Senate. Only after that can representatives and senators begin debating these measures in committee and on the floor to determine if they merit their approval.
If $78,177,432 was the cost of lawmaking from 2019-2020 and you divide that by the number of bills and resolutions, then anyone can calculate what taxpayers pay per piece of legislation. From 2019-2020, it comes to $17,166.76 per bill or resolution filed, but the cost goes up dramatically when only factoring in signed legislation, which would be $125,083.89 per enacted bill.
While this is a back of envelope calculation intended only to put the costs into perspective, some people will counter and say that lawmakers do far more than just pass legislation, like overseeing constituent services. This sometimes includes helping Georgians navigate government bureaucracies and introducing resolutions commending and memorializing constituents. These activities can be meaningful, worthwhile, and important, but lawmakers’ primary job is, well, to make laws. It’s even in their title: LAW-makers.
Others will claim that these costs are baked into the process regardless of the number of bills and resolutions, which is partially accurate. Yes, there are expenses that will remain constant, and the General Assembly doesn’t charge taxpayers on a per bill or resolution basis as if it were a ridiculously expensive a la carte restaurant. That’s just not how the budget works, but the more issues legislators work on, the more support staff and resources they need. The inverse is also true.
The most important issue at play is that of opportunity costs. The more that legislators focus on non-serious matters—or focus on them in non-serious ways—the less opportunities they and their support staff have to work on issues important to most Georgians.
This isn’t a knock against all lawmakers. Clearly, the majority of them are doing an admirable job on a tiny salary, which is evident by the state’s AAA bond rating, overflowing rainy day fund, balanced budget and record low unemployment. However, if Georgians are dumping nearly $80 million every two years into lawmaking, maybe more lawmakers should ensure that less time is spent on frivolous issues.
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