Today’s Courier Herald Column:
According to Atlanta Fox5 News’ Justin Gray, an appointed blue ribbon committee to study “fair compensation” has recommended increasing the members of Atlanta’s City Council from just over $39,000 per year to $60,000. The Atlanta Mayor’s salary would be increased from $147,000 to $184,000. The recommendations now go to the council for a vote, and would take effect in 2014, which would be after next year’s council and mayoral elections. Atlanta City Council members’ positions are considered part time jobs.
By comparison, “part time” state lawmakers make about $17,000 per year, plus about 8,600 in per diem (assuming they aren’t Don Balfour and charge for every other waking day, whether in state or not).
It’s easy to take pot shots at public servants voting to increase their own salaries. It goes with the territory, especially when area non-government job and wage growth has been stagnant at best since the housing and financial collapse. Non-elected government employees would probably be quick to remind that not only have they not seen raises, but furlough days remain a fresh memory for them.
The process of raising salaries of elected officials demonstrates the problems that will be encountered if legislators were to attempt to raise their own salaries. City Council members that vote for this probably realize they have attained the highest office they will ever seek. It is likely we’ll know who sees themselves as a future Mayor or City Council President by who votes “no”.
It will be much tougher for a super-majority Republican caucus in the House or Senate to support a similar proposal for legislators, as they would not only likely have guaranteed negative direct mail for any future higher office, but may well guarantee a primary challenge for their current office.
The reality of the situation that a $25,000 compensation package for a job that isn’t really part time and for many of the legislators requires the expense of being away from home for a significant length of time is no longer “market”. Several legislators have walked away just this year for that reason. (Too) Many others have left mid-term after securing an appointment from the Governor for a much higher paying state job – The kinds that come with six figure compensation packages and no need to deal with pesky voters every two years.
Some have suggested that lawmakers should be given a raise in order to gain support for gift caps and stronger and more easily enforceable ethics laws for lawmakers. Others resist the idea and the premise, stating that lawmakers shouldn’t be compensated extra just to be honest.
Stripping the tie to ethics reform away from the issue, and at some point the question should be asked if the current compensation package for legislators is adequate to attract a diverse background of Georgia citizens to run for office. Legislators must calculate the cost versus benefit of leaving their normal occupation for months at a time during the winter and randomly during the year for committee meetings, coupled with the many meetings they must attend weekly throughout their communities to stay connected to their constituents.
Plus, there are actual expenses involved with traveling to, staying in, and eating while in Atlanta. Poster boys of excess like Senator Don Balfour are the exception with their ability to raise campaign funds and garner campaign warchests that can fund lifestyles of the politically connected and powerful. Most can generate a lobbyist meal on demand if needed, but still must find reasonable lodging covered from the per diem allowance.
It is not likely that this is a problem that will see a solution any time soon. As mentioned above, it is generally limiting of political upward mobility to vote for a pay increase, even if that raise is limited to future office holders. In an era of negative campaigns based on half-truths, any vote to increase legislator pay can and will be used against those who vote for it in future contests.
Georgians should also consider, however, that underfunding legislative pay limits the pool of those who will serve. As more and more legislators leave the body for financial reasons, it is likely we will be left with those who are limited to certain professions that thrive off of connections to power, or to those who must seek benefactors for employment on special terms where the legislator’s outside paycheck may well be tied to the performance of bills that affect the employer.