However reluctantly, the Legislature has begun a sensitive debate over the freebies that lawmakers accept from those pushing the bills they pass judgment upon.
At the risk of being accused of goal post-moving, allow me to point out that everyone involved – lawmakers, the press, tea partyers, and do-gooders of all stripes – has shied away from the fundamental situation that makes any conversation about ethics reform so difficult.
The topic is so politically volatile that no lawmaker, Republican or Democrat, is allowed to mention the subject – unless it is to douse it with cold water. But here it is in a nutshell: We need to start paying a decent salary to these 236 lawmakers sent to Atlanta each year.
The idea was considered and ultimately discarded by the alliance of conservatives, liberals and civic-minded pushing this year’s $100 cap on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.
“They don’t think that anybody is going to buy into it this year,” said Kay Godwin, a Republican activist from south Georgia. “It’s not the right time, but it’s the right thing to do. We’ve mentioned to everybody that this is the direction that we want to go in. The legislators all agree with us. And the tea party.”
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.
Yes, the state constitution obliges members of the House and Senate to work only 40 days each year. But in reality, sessions stretch across four months and more. Employers willing to cut loose a worker for that kind of time are few and far between.
There are two arguments against paying state lawmakers on the cheap. Godwin prefers this one: “It really limits the people who can run for office,” she 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. Lawmakers get irked if you infer that these things constitute corruption. So let us refer to them as privatized salary supplements.
Such things matter. Consider the case of former state Rep. Ralph Long, D-Atlanta. He was lumped into the same House district with another Democrat, and lost a primary fight last July. But the Atlanta City Council just bumped up the salary for future members to $60,300. He’s given thought to running for a seat.
“I don’t want [public service] to be a jobs program, but in actuality, legislators have to be able to live,” Long said. If he should run and win, Long’s demotion and a walk across the street would earn him a 248 percent bump in salary. With more money for staff, too.
Any increase in the salaries of state lawmakers would no doubt have to be accompanied by changes in the way they are currently reimbursed. That $173 for daily expenses would have to be curtailed, for instance.
“I’ve been told by senators who wouldn’t want to be identified that, more so than campaign contributions and the lobbyists’ gifts, the opportunity to collect per diem is more valuable in terms of chairmanships and moving up the ladder,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “That’s cash money.”
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, R-Columbus, the Capitol’s most aggressive proponent of a $100 cap on gifts for lawmakers.
No, 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.
But ultimately, it must be addressed.
Republicans on the stump are quick to say that government needs to be run more like a business.
But let’s say that Acme Grinders has sent its top sales person to Atlanta on an extended campaign, only to find that the competition has wined and dined and flattered him with a host of privatized salary supplements. Bosses at Acme Grinders would call this a firing offense.
We call it something else at the Capitol: Normal.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider