Georgia lawmakers squabble over pay cuts

Riley Bunch/CNHI

The Capitol Building in Atlanta bustles with lawmakers and lobbyists on the first day of the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 13.

ATLANTA — A handful of lawmakers fought tooth and nail to avoid cuts to their salaries but budget writers said the pay cuts are necessary to true-up the budget.

Both chambers passed legislation to cut pay for the General Assembly, as state agencies across the board see 10% pay cuts to their budgets.

While proponents argue lawmakers need to “lead by example,” the Democratic Caucus took the stance that if lawmakers take cuts then elected constitutional officers making six figure salaries — starting with the governor — need to slash their pay, too.

Senators and state representatives will see a 10% pay, cut and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan will cut his salary by 14%.

The Senate passed the legislation with a 43 to 10 vote and the House passed it 106 to 51.

“As elected officials this is an important step,” Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, said on the House floor. “It’s an important message to take this pay cut.”

The Georgia General Assembly’s staff were not exempt from furloughs in the early version of the state’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposal but were some of the tens of thousands of state employees who learned they will not be furloughed.

Budget writers eliminated furloughs by scraping together extra dollars everywhere in the budget they could find them — including legislator paychecks.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said lawmaker salary cuts and Duncan’s voluntary 14% pay cut are “baked” into the budget proposal that is facing $2.2 billion in spending cuts.

Tillery said the budget is “counting on” lawmaker pay cuts.

House Democrats argued the state isn’t doing enough to find new revenue sources and is focused too heavily on cuts.

"Yes, Georgians expect us to lead by example, but example should not be cherry-picking,” Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said. "If you’re going to cut somebody, everybody needs to take some of it. You should take from those who got something, because they don’t pay us enough to move the scale.

“You’re creating a legislature where eventually only two types of people will serve here: the very rich and the dirt poor,” he continued. "Those who don’t need it and those where any money would be a pay raise.”

State Rep. Erica Thomas, D-Austell, said the move discourages people who are teachers, farmers and blue-collar workers from running for office because they couldn’t afford to serve. You’d be left with just lawyers and doctors, she said, who don’t represent the majority of Georgians.

But Republican lawmakers argued lawmakers need to take the hit especially for their staff.

“This isn’t symbolic and you can go around and ask any one of the staffers that staff this house. Because if we don’t take this pay cut today, it will be them that gets furloughed,” Majority Whip Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, said. “If we weren’t happy with our pay we shouldn’t have signed up to do (the job).”

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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