Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican, is sponsoring a bill to raise the pay of Georgia lawmakers. He said when he learned how little part-time lawmakers are paid he wanted to increase it before he left office. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
State lawmakers would nearly double their pay and significantly raise the salaries of constitutional officers under a bill gaining traction under the Gold Dome.
The powerful House Rules Committee approved a bill Wednesday that set their annual salary at nearly $30,000, up from the $17,342 they are currently paid. The change would take effect in in 2023 after the next election, meaning the lawmakers voting on the change may not personally ever see the higher salary.
The pay hikes are in line with a 2018 compensation study from a commission appointed by former Gov. Nathan Deal, then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston. Deal signed off on a plan to raise his successor’s pay up to $175,000 before he left office.
The salary for lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and the speaker of the House would be set at $135,000. Ralston currently makes about $100,000 a year; the lieutenant governor is paid about $92,000.
Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said he first got elected in 2014 not knowing what legislators are paid. And when he learned, he said he wanted to try to increase the pay before he left office. Cantrell, who was reelected last year, says he is serving his last two-year term now.
Cantrell, who is a minister, argued that lawmakers should earn a “respectable” salary to help ensure diverse representation at the statehouse and make the opportunity to serve in the Legislature doable for more people.
“Right now, when you look around this the chamber, it appears that it’s limited to the rich, the poor, those who are married to someone with a good salary and people like those of us in this room this morning who love our states so much that will serve no matter what,” Cantrell said.
It’s considered a part-time job, since the Legislature is only in session for about three months. But Midway Democrat Rep. Al Williams said Tuesday the concept of a citizen-legislator “ended with social media.”
Not surprisingly, Cantrell’s proposal is popular among his colleagues. The bill easily passed out of the Rules Committee, where it was assigned, and has co-sponsors from both parties.
But pursuing a pay hike for themselves comes with the expected political pitfalls, even though the last legislative pay increase was two decades ago.
“I think if we don’t do it this year, it may never happen,” Cantrell said. “And I think it’s very appropriate and easily defensible.”
Last year, Republicans touted an election-year pay cut for themselves as they cut $2.2 billion from the state’s budget when the economic outlook during the pandemic was grim. But instead of a budget shortfall, state revenues are much healthier than expected.
Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told reporters Wednesday that the pay proposal would still be lower than what legislators take home in neighboring Alabama, where the salary for law-making is now about $52,000.
“If people want to vote for it, they can, and I don’t think there’s anything to be embarrassed by doing that,” Ralston said. “If they want to vote against it, they certainly have that right. And we’re going to give them an opportunity and see what the will of the House is and then move forward.”
If the measure passes, lawmaker pay would be tied to inflation moving forward.
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