The Georgia General Assembly finally wrapped up the 2020 legislative session on June 26. It was the longest session in recent memory, stretching from January to June thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, which battered the state’s budget. As a result, legislators were forced to buckle down and make steep cuts – around 10 percent across the board – to balance the budget.

In a commendable effort to lead by example, legislators even approved pay cuts for themselves, which resulted in a 10 percent reduction for state senators and representatives. However, the Lieutenant Governor requested that his salary be slashed by 14 percent. These were wise moves. After all, it would be highly hypocritical for lawmakers to support cuts to agency budgets but not their own. Even so, 51 representatives and 10 senators voted against the measure.

During the process, numerous naysayers groused about the current legislative pay, which, they complained, has long been too low, and they have a point. As such, when the economy fully rebounds, lawmakers ought to debate a reasonable pay raise.

As it stands, lawmakers earn a base salary of around $16,200 a year, which is a far cry from living in the lap of luxury. Of course, this doesn’t take into account their per diem or daily expense allowance. Moreover, Georgia has a part-time legislature, which means that, excluding special sessions, off-season study committees, and constituent services, lawmakers are expected to be at the Gold Dome for at least the 40 legislative days and committee days that normally span from January to March or April.

So, why should they consider a raise?

While nearly every Georgian – so long as they meet the basic prerequisites – can theoretically become a lawmaker, the reality is far different. Legislator salaries and the structure of the session limits entry into the General Assembly.

The truth is that there aren’t many people who are impressed by a $16,200 salary, unless they are already living in extreme poverty. What’s more, most employers aren’t too keen on permitting their employees to take off three months a year for legislative session, and few individuals can afford to do so. Many of those who can are independently wealthy, work for a highly flexible employer, are retired, or are actually unemployed.

Thus, only those below the poverty line, those who are already wealthy, or those with flexible schedules might find the job, along with its salary, palatable. This could greatly restrict the assembly’s composition, and it increases the likelihood that the Legislature may go through periods when it isn’t necessarily representative of our population.

But increasing legislator pay could help rectify this issue. A larger salary will attract more candidates from all classes, permit those with restrictive schedules the ability to consider being a lawmaker in lieu of keeping their inflexible private sector position, and provide the support that some current lawmakers need.

There were a few proposals during the 2019-2020 legislative session to do just this. SB 13 would have increased lawmakers’ salaries to around $29,000 and SB 81 to $56,000, but neither gained any traction, especially in the current economic climate. When the economy roars back, this could once again become a pressing issue, given that Georgia lawmakers haven’t seen a base salary raise since 1999.

If this comes to fruition, there are few other dollar amounts that legislators could consider: Had lawmakers’ salaries increased from 1999 based solely on inflation, then they’d earn about $25,600 today. Alternatively, they could consider Georgia’s average per capita income of $29,500 or the median household income of nearly $56,000.

Whatever number the Georgia General Assembly decides, it should be fiscally responsible and too small to lead to luxurious living. After all, being a lawmaker is supposed to be about public service, not self-enrichment. Further, the salary needs to be tied to a minimum level of legislative work, session attendance, committee participation, and constituent accessibility. Finally, this pay bump must not lead to a year-round legislature, which would result in enormous per diem payments and increased bureaucracy as elected officials find more time to tinker with the code, pass superfluous laws, and create new programs.

While Georgia is lucky to have many hardworking lawmakers with servants’ hearts in the General Assembly, all Georgians should want to have more of them. One way to work toward that goal, open the legislative ranks to more Georgians, and reward current lawmakers for their services could be to consider legislator pay increases when the recession lifts.

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