Would tripling salaries solve our ethics problem over the long haul?

January 16, 2013 23:30 pm

by Bridget Cantrell · 53 comments

I was going to put this in tomorrow’s morning reads, but it’s a topic worthy of its own post.  Jim Galloway discusses the forbidden topic lurking behind the ethics reform debate.

A couple of highlights:

  • State lawmakers earn $17,342 a year. Ten states pay less, according to one national overview. A $173 per diem – only four states have higher daily expense coverage – augments their pay to $24,000 or so. If you get what you pay for, then Georgians should have no reason to complain. They’ve been paying for an army of fry cooks and dishwashers.
  • “It really limits the people who can run for office,” [Godwin] said. A Legislature heavy with retirees, the wealthy and the willing poor doesn’t accurately reflect the public that sends them there, she argues.
  • The less savory argument is that an adequately reimbursed lawmaker would be less likely to feel entitled to the free meals, booze, and tickets to concerts and football games that are now on the table.
  • The problem is that lawmakers themselves are loathe to raise the pay issue. “I’m not going to vote for an increase in legislative pay when I have school teachers in every district that I represent who are being furloughed,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon.
  • Livable wages for state lawmakers would have to be an issue taken up by a fellow with plenty of clout and little to lose. A governor in his second term, for instance.
Quick math: 236 lawmakers @$17,342 = $4.09M; @$60,000 = $14.16M.
  1. What’s the true ROI on that $10M difference?
  2. Could some of these watchdog folks accumulate enough examples of taxpayer money lost on unethical behavior to show where $10M actually starts looking like a great deal?
  3. And no, legislators can’t push this – “Hey, pay us more and we’ll start being ethical!”  There’s no spin doctor around who can make that sound good.
  4. And without a public outcry, why would the affluent legislators who do it for the ego rather than the money willingly give up that power anyway?
  5. I wonder – where are the concerned citizens of each community who would speak out and say, “I would run against [this incumbent] if I were paid a salary I could live on all year.  40 days?  I’d be your representative 24/365.”  Those are the people who would need to get on the news to get the ball rolling I’d guess.


saltycracker January 17, 2013 at 12:09 am

How about some ideas where the legislature is not a career but public service?
Raise the pay, encourage employers to give them a leave of absence and set term limits.

Don’t know what is worse, a professional bureaucrat or a professional lawmaker, probably the latter.

The Last Democrat in Georgia January 17, 2013 at 12:21 am

“Don’t know what is worse, a professional bureaucrat or a professional lawmaker, probably the latter.”

…You are very likely right, though both of them are pretty darn bad.

Joshua Morris January 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Professional bureaucrats are of greater consequence.

mpierce January 17, 2013 at 12:32 am

Highest paying states
CA – $95,290
PA – $83,802
NY – $79,500
MI – $71,865
IL – $67,836

As far as ethics, I think the ROI might be negative on that $10M.

seenbetrdayz January 17, 2013 at 6:49 am

Not surprising that those states made the list.

Napoleon January 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm

All of those states mentioned are states that have what are considered full time legislators. The National Conference of State Legislatures considers full time legislators that who spend 70% or more of their time devoted to their duties (http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/legislatures/full-and-part-time-legislatures.aspx).

On average, the Georgia legislature meets from Jan. – April, so, not counting per diem, a member of the legislature is paid $4,335.50 per month. Stretched out over a year for a full time salary, the amount is $52,026.00.

Using CNN’s cost of living calculator, using the cost of living in Atlanta, that amount would translate to about $84,000 in San Franciso, CA, $58,000 in Albany, NY, $55,000 for Harrisburg, PA, $48,000 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and $46,000 in Springfield, IL. (http://money.cnn.com/calculator/pf/cost-of-living).

Where the state capital was not an option, I used the nearest city. It’s not perfect in that considering the cost of living in Albany, NY, a $52,000 annual salary in Atlanta would be equal to a $55,000 annual salary in Albany, but you would need about $115,000 to have the same standard of living in Manhattan. So a member of the NY House representing Manhattan and living off $79,500 a year full time salary would be like a House member from Valdosta, GA having a full time salary of $35,000 a year.

According to the NCSL, the average compensation, including per diem, of part time legislators like we have in GA, but also in WY, NV, IN, MS, NH, VT, KS, etc, is $15,984.00, which is nearly $10,000 less than our legislators get.

Also, members of the legislature get state benefits that are not widely reported or considered in compensation. Buzz can correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe that members get to participate in the state employee’s health care plan, which is much, much cheaper than a private health insurance plan, and, they can participate in state retirement once they reach the 10 year mark, which is also the threshhold for regular employees.

Dave Bearse January 17, 2013 at 12:43 am

I understand legislators that reside within xx miles (40?m 50?) pay income taxes on per diem.

Would someone tell me if the per diem of legislators outside that range is always exempt from income taxation, or only when the legislative business is more than the limit from their residence?

Napoleon January 18, 2013 at 10:37 am

Although it does not answer his question, Dave’s post reminds me of something I once heard, that a member of the legislature can claim a per diem for a “Committee of One” day when the legislature is not in session and there is very little oversight on the actual legitimacy of acting as a “Committee of One.”

Dave Bearse January 19, 2013 at 9:57 am

Happens all the time, and it’s what got Balfour in trouble. Committee Chariman are primarily responsible for oversight of such days by their membership. It’s the reason why Balour still serving as a Committee Chariman is proof the Senate cannot police itself, and will only do the minimum to get by until its again business as usual.

Will Durant January 19, 2013 at 10:38 am

Counting the automatic 50 per diem days allowed while in session Balfour claimed a total of 173 days in 2011 or ~72% of the official state work days in that year. The Senate Rules Committee did not hold a single meeting out of session as ostensibly their job is to determine which bills go before the entire Senate during the session.

You have to wonder if Waffle House thought they received their money’s worth paying him as an executive in 2011. I tried to look up his exact title but apparently none of the money in his million dollar war chest was available to pay for his website as donbalfour.com is now available on GoDaddy.

The GBI turned over the results of their investigation of Balfour to the AG in mid-December. No word yet from the AG or the Governor. Perhaps they will just find another opening available at GPB ;·)

Will Durant January 17, 2013 at 1:20 am

Some of those higher paying states meet practically year-round. Heaven forbid. Georgia’s legislature comes up with too much stupid stuff in 40 days.

What about an incentive plan? Say a one-time payment of 1/10 of 1% of every bona fide spending cut.

The Last Democrat in Georgia January 17, 2013 at 2:44 am

“Georgia’s legislature comes up with too much stupid stuff in 40 days.”

Georgia is not the only state legislature that comes up with excessive amounts of stupid legislation, but far from it as New York, which already had one of the most-restrictive gun laws in the nation, just passed a gun law that is even moreso restrictive so as to most-likely be unconstitutional.

And that’s not even including California, whose legislature seemingly just pretty much sits around dreaming up new and exciting ways to drive as much business and economic activity as they can out of their state, whom they continue to joyfully drive deeper into bankruptcy (to my knowledge, California hasn’t had a balanced state budget since sometime back around the turn-of-the-millennium, with the state being as much as $40 billion in-the-red, at times during the past decade or so).

And let’s not even mention Illinois, where 4 of the last 9 governors have been sentenced to prison.

Georgia is well-known to have one of the goofiest state legislatures around, but by no means is it alone.

The Last Democrat in Georgia January 17, 2013 at 2:21 am

“Would tripling salaries solve our ethics problem over the long haul?”

No, it wouldn’t…Look no further than the bastion of political corruption that is Illinois for proof that substantially raising salaries would not solve our ethics problem:

“The Problem…Although facing a serious budget deficit, Illinois legislators remain among the best compensated in the nation. Today, Illinois state representatives and senators earn a base salary of $67,836—the fifth-highest legislator salary in the country. Only California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania pay their legislators more”……..

……”Illinois state representatives and senators earn around 47 percent more than the average Illinois resident, who earns $46,110 a year according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupations in Illinois receiving comparable compensation to legislators include microbiologists, physics professors, credit analysts and tax examiners.”

seenbetrdayz January 17, 2013 at 6:48 am

Or we could just elect people who aren’t doing it for the perks or the power.

BuckheadConservative January 17, 2013 at 11:21 am

^ This. All day.

GTKay January 17, 2013 at 7:25 am

I think the focus should be on the length of the session. Our 40 legislative days stretch out through spring break some years. It would have to be a constitutional change, but if the 40 days were actual calendar days and the legislators could be finished by March 1, then the current salary and per diem would be reasonable compensation for someone taking that much time away from their regular job. I know they’re meeting with committees and constituents when they’re not in session, but maybe less time in Atlanta would bring more urgency to get the work done and provide less time for socializing. It would at least open up the prospect of serving to a wider range of people.

The Last Democrat in Georgia January 17, 2013 at 7:36 am

Getting Georgia Legislators back out-of-town quicker….I like it! Even though I know that it has about an ice cube’s chance in hell of becoming law. Many, but certainly not all, legislators come to Atlanta just for the opportunity to “socialize” far away from the inquiring eyes of the communities (church, family, wife, etc) they are supposed to be concentrating on serving.

IndyInjun January 17, 2013 at 7:31 am

What steams me is that a legislator who gets per diem from Georgia can also get paid for his apartment rent out of his unexpended campaign funds. Isn’t that double charging?

Overall, I am in favor of paying them more if coupled with strict prohibition against taking anything from a lobbyist.

Dave Bearse January 17, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Of course it’s double charging. Just as the pocketing of the meals component of the per diem because lobbyists often provide group Continental breakfast, and top it off with an extravagant dinner.

My past recommendation was travel reimbursement be handled just like it is for the majority of middle management. Establish guidelines, and require legislators submit a report documenting out of pocket expenses, lodging meals etc, plus actual mileage.

Establish guidelines that provide for some sort of (taxable) compensation in connection with Committee meetings and other official business outside of the 40 days in session.

A $25 gift cap in connection with requiring documentation of out of pocket meal expenses, and lobbyist paid meals won’t be very useful in influencing legislators.

Bob Loblaw January 17, 2013 at 8:00 am

Wow. This didn’t take long.

Folks have been warning you throughout this entire Ethics debate that at some point, the Common Causers and their liberal buddies were coming for your tax dollars. This is their first salvo.

More taxes to pay politicians = less chance that they’d resist someone buying them dinner? For realz? C’mon, man! Hate to borrow a username on here but yuzeyourbrain!

You can pay them 10x what they’re getting now, let Common Cause eliminate fundraising and replace it with taxpayer-funded campaigns and human nature dictates that free wins. Yes, the legislator will accept a ticket to the Falcons game rather than pay stufhub $350 for an upper level seat. Right now, its fully transparent and you can see it and write snarky news stories and everything! Let this system go the way of the Do Do bird and you’ll pay more, know less and nothing will change.

drjay January 17, 2013 at 8:21 am

i may not be typical, but the time away from home was as big an issue for me as anything when i was thinking about running for the legislature last year…although the negative impact on my livelihood was also important. telecommuting for ctte metings would be nice, then there would be less per diems to be paid out and possibly a larger group of folks below the gnat line that might consider serving…

Dave Bearse January 17, 2013 at 8:28 am

I’ve long periodically suggested on PP that pay be increased, and per diem and reimbursement reformed.

Three Jack January 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

Would we get a higher quality group of legislators if we paid them more, say $60,000 as used in the example above…I give you the U.S. Congress where members are paid $170,000 plus all sorts of perks.

At $24,000 for 40 days work (I realize they work more days, but that is official count), legislators are paid $600 per day. Compare with an average teacher receiving $47,000 for about 180 days work = $261 per day. Maybe legislators should be paid about the same amount as an average teacher.

BuckheadConservative January 17, 2013 at 11:29 am

No. They’re less valuable than teachers.

DeKalb Wonkette January 17, 2013 at 9:07 am

Upping lawmakers’ pay could attract more qualified officeholders. However, I don’t think it’s a silver bullet on “ethics” issues. States w/full time legislatures that are paid well aren’t necessarily more ethical. Ditto the congress.

BuckheadConservative January 17, 2013 at 11:27 am

No. It will attract less qualified office holders. We don’t need an entire trade of people who’s only accomplishments are self promotion and winning elections. We need more people who’ve had success outside of politics.

IndyInjun January 17, 2013 at 9:17 am

40 day sessions coupled with inadequate support resources to evaluate and score proposed legislation means a legislature that is complicit or snookered. The legislation that I have looked at over the last few years has consequences that the legislators are ill-equipped to discern on their own. The end result is that they look either stupid, or bought-and-paid for.

They don’t help this image by doing things like ramming through SB 31 a few sessions back in the face of fact-based opposition.

When we present you with fact-based and powerful arguments against passing a bill and you do it anyway, don’t act surprised when we blast you for costing us money without cease. If we pay you the equivalent of a full time salary, you better be prepared work at it year around without whining about being “part time.”

Jackster January 17, 2013 at 9:21 am

Here’s my reform:

Have the counties and cities they represent pay them instead of the state. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to pass along funding liabilities to the local levels if it meant their salaries were also funding liabilities.

Also, I think it’s most everyone’s expectation that their elected officials are available to them at all times, not just when the legislature is in session. How do they bill for their time then? Or is that the “Public Servant” part?

elfiii January 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm

The solution is to elect honest people in the first place. Are there any “honest people” willing to take the job? Apparently very few.

Jackster January 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm

sure, if there are honest political arsonists willing to give them an easier time.

Ed January 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I’ve mentioned this before but term limits doesn’t necessarily help things. When the entire legislature turns over every few years (as is the case in NE and a few other states) the only people left with institutional knowledge and legislative know-how are lobbyists. And that’s who legislators rely on for the overwhelming majority of their work. As in, far more than they do know.

My point is: I really don’t know what a solution would be but I know most populist “solutions” aren’t.

Napoleon January 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm

And the staff. I’ve talked to some FL members who say that has been the byproduct of their term limits, that professional staff become the experts on policy issues and processes and tend to have a lot of influence.

BuckheadConservative January 17, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Is the current system of having all this “institutional knowledge” held by politicians doing us any good? Are they using that knowledge to create a better or worse government? It’s worse. It’s very obviously worse.

Napoleon January 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

As there are no perfect people, except for Obama, there can be no perfect government. But I think term limits gets us closer to it.

BuckheadConservative January 17, 2013 at 4:09 pm


Ed January 18, 2013 at 10:13 am

But that’s where I disagree. Term limits won’t stop craven individuals from running from office. Term limits won’t stop power grabs. Term limits won’t make legislators more responsive to citizens (they’re gone in a few years so what does it matter). Term limits won’t end seniority. Term limits just don’t really mean a whole lot.

saltycracker January 18, 2013 at 11:02 am

Term limits, limit.

BuckheadConservative January 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Au contraire. Limiting terms move the office further toward a public service and less of a career or long term second income as it can be in GA. Also takes some presitge out of it. Thus, the job is less attractive to the sort of craven individuals who seek the job for a title and paycheck (those more vulnerable to ethical lapses.) It will slow power grabs. No one wants to bother to consolidate power just to turn over to some new jerk in 6 years or so. And I do think you’ll get more responsive, civic minded people.

In lieu of term limits, might I put forth an idea I saw on Twitter recently? An “Take an oath of office, lose a finger” Amendment.

PJ O’Rourke is right. Public service at every level should be like PTO. You step up when needed, serve your term (somewhat reluctantly), and then go back to your business and let someone else deal with it.

Term limits aren’t a silver bullet. But they’re a damn good start.

The Last Democrat in Georgia January 18, 2013 at 7:11 pm

You’re right, term limits are a damned good start, but like you also stated, everyone needs to beware that term limits are not a silver bullet.

Term limits didn’t keep guys like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama from running for and winning the Presidency and it damned sure didn’t keep those guys from trying to expand the powers of the office while they were “serving”.

Everyone needs to be keenly aware that term limits won’t necessarily keep the sociopathic narcissists out of office as much as it will hopefully limit the amount of damage that one single sociopathic narcissist can do while holding any one particular office.

The problem isn’t the job or the office, the problem is the money that is in the system and the amount of money that any one particular position of power will attract from those who have the power to control the system. As long as there are people in positions of power making laws, there will always be people using money to manipulate the system by attempting to buy off the people in position to make those laws because, as they say, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics”.

Napoleon January 19, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Ed’s points are well taken and are true. Not having term limits is an issue regarding freedom. When we impose term limits we are telling the voters they are too stupid to recognize and vote out a corrupt, or even simply an ineffective legislator. I would say there are more inept lawmakers than corrupt law makers.

The conservative and libertarian ideology should be in opposition to term limits. It is a “big government” view-point to have the law tell people who they can and cannot vote for. I guess this is an area where I am a little more leftist in my viewpoint.

IndyInjun January 17, 2013 at 4:00 pm

New media will help. Its power grows because of corruption in the ‘establishment’ media. Couple activism with term limits and better remuneration and I think things would improve. All human efforts and institutions are impervious to panaceas.

Nonchalant January 17, 2013 at 4:47 pm

If there is someone truly reflecting the spirit of a community and so superior in talents that his fellow citizens of a district need him or her at the statehouse regardless of his financial condition, they should be willing to put their own hands into their own pockets and subsidize his salary.

Having spent time in California, all you get with full-time pay is careerists disconnected from the community, needing that government job just to have a job. The Georgia system is ideal.

Nonchalant January 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Regarding a district supplementing the salary of their representative–I mean, the man is *their* “lobbyist”, after all. Why shouldn’t they if they wish to? Sonething modest, and broad based, and limited to persons actually of the district.

I mean, churches do it with preachers, don’t they?

Andre January 17, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Yes, and there are plenty of corrupt preachers who use the church to finance their lavish lifestyles. Creflo Dollar immediately comes to mind.

IndyInjun January 18, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Rev. Ike – ” The LACK of money is the root of all evil”

Harry January 19, 2013 at 10:48 am

Higher salaries would not necessarily result in election of more competent or ethical candidates.

Napoleon January 19, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Harry, I don’t think truer words could have been written.

Doug Deal January 22, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Maybe the problem is that we are still living in the 1700’s in regard to how we run our legislatures. Most work is done in committee, we have something similiar here where I work. We call them teleconferences. Further, why do votes need to be taken in person, that could be done via teleconference as well. Maybe create an app for members to vote from their phones, with every vote then logged for the voters to see in real time. Alternatively, perhaps rented space in virtual “mini-capitals” could be used so that the far flung legislators can limit commutes to under an hour anywhere in the state.

What does this accomplish? For one, legislators will then not have to live in Atlanta during the session and could stay at home. The 40 day session could be spread out to take advantage of weekends, evenings and such so that people can still work their real job or run their business.

drjay January 22, 2013 at 4:16 pm

that seems like it would be awfully inconvienent for the lobbyists…

Doug Deal January 22, 2013 at 4:26 pm

You’re right, scrap it. :-)

I was thinking that this would be much better for Congress. It would keep members of Congress in their home state close to their voters but also would mean lobbyists would have to spend a fortune to get the ear of Congressmen, while voters could just go over and egg their house.

Napoleon January 22, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Would work better for Congress than a state legislature.

Napoleon January 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

…whether they are professionally paid or citizens concerned about legislation.

Doug Deal January 22, 2013 at 5:08 pm

It would be easier for citizens since they represent their district, the legislator would be home and easy to meet.

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