The Problem of Part-time Legislators

Mar 31, 2016

The Georgia General Assembly's work is done. Legislators must now run for re-election. Well, most of them. More than a dozen are actually going to retire. Among them Nikki Randall of Macon. So why are they leaving? And is it because of the salaries these part time lawmakers get?  To answer that question GPB Macon’s Michael Caputo brought in Chris Grant a political science professor for Mercer University. 

Michael Caputo: So these are supposed to be part time jobs. Are they really part time jobs? 

Chris Grant: Well I think that one of the problems is that they have to have other jobs to supplement income unless they're independently wealthy. So yeah they're part time jobs in the sense that they meet for 40 days and with committee meetings etc. they probably would do about 100 days of legislative work a year about half time jobs. They compensated at a relatively low rate compared to other professionals. 

Michael Caputo: How low? 

Chris Grant: $17000 a year. Plus they get a per diem when they're in office, when they're doing a legislative work, of $150 a day. And if you're not from Atlanta, that's not so great. 

Michael Caputo: That's really difficult actually. I wonder what that must be like for people who have to travel? Does that mean they're staying there? Does that mean they're lodging somehow have a second place to live? 

Chris Grant: A lot of times they use hotels. Sometimes they rent apartments. Sometimes they share apartments with other legislators. It really all depends on how well heeled the actual legislator is who is serving. The old way the General Assembly was supposed to work back when they came up with this scheme is that they met during the winter quarter when the state university system was on quarters and it was when the crops ... the fields were dead. And so you came after the harvest and you left right before planting time and that's how it was supposed to work originally and that's no longer where we live in the state. 

Michael Caputo: Well let me be broad for one second that idea of the citizen legislator is that old thought of the farmer he's going to come off the fields for a couple of years going to serve the country. Is that antiquated? Is that outmoded at this point? Do they need to be full time? 

Chris Grant: Well there's there's a case that could be made for full time legislators a number of states have the New York, California, Illinois ... all have full time legislators. This is their career this is their job this is what they invest in. I think one of the big problems for us is that, yeah, it works for folks that are still are in farming career. 

It doesn't work so well for folks that either don't have a job that allow them to go to Atlanta. And spend time in Atlanta and take off for 10 weeks scattered around. And it doesn't work really well for folks that aren't independently wealthy or don't have the career flexibility. So sort of that the mission of a citizen legislature back in the old days we would have a lot of farmers so there'd be a lot of legislators that were citizens, certainly have lawyers and others from the Atlanta area that would be able to serve in the general assembly. 

Chris Grant: But today so few of our population work in agriculture, and are on the agricultural cycle there's a lot of citizens that get left out of the chance to serve as a citizen legislator and there's Friday ways you could do that we could still have part time legislators that stretch the season such legislative session around the year to do different things but this session the way it's structured is pretty difficult to recruit ambitious politicians to want to invest in a lifetime in it. 

Michael Caputo: $17,000. Should it just be increased? Is that going to do the trick? You to just increase it, increase per diem? 

Chris Grant: Well I mean there have been calls for that in the past. There is always a question about who wants to take a $17,000 a year job. And why would anybody want that job and the only reason that makes sense if you are trying to make a financial gain is if there are some financial gain that you make in the spare time. There's a lot of noble people that are serving the General Assembly that certainly aren't up to any mischief on the side but it is hard to spend a career making these very low wages and expect to get to a place that you know had they haven't had a raise. Gosh like 20 years.