Not all Georgia lawmakers want a raise. But for others, the $22k salary isn’t enough

State lawmakers gathered at the Capitol on the first day of the legislative session, Jan. 9, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Updated March 30 at 9:40 a.m.

State lawmakers just might be the only people who would ever deny a pay raise.

This year, Georgia state senators and representatives are earning a salary of $22,342. They also receive a per diem, or daily allowance, of $247 during the session.

It’s the highest the pay has ever been, thanks to a cost of living pay raise for all state employees last year. A previous pay raise for lawmakers took effect in 2007.

“A lot of that, I think, has to do with the historical legacy that we’ve inherited, and certainly the part-time nature of the legislature,” says Democratic Rep. Sam Park of Lawrenceville.

Georgia’s legislature has historically been a citizen legislature in which, ideally, everyday citizens — not career politicians — take part in the lawmaking process.

Some say the low pay is important to maintain the citizen legislature. Others say that the pay limits who is able to run for office to those who are independently wealthy or retired, and that the legislature isn’t representative of Georgia’s population because of it.

This year, there was no legislation concerning the pay of lawmakers. The most recent attempt to raise the pay came in 2022 when House members proposed HR 842, a resolution to let voters decide if the salary would be set at 60% of the state’s median household income, or $39,018. The resolution died in the Senate. A 2021 bill proposed to nearly double the pay and index it to inflation.

By comparison, members of Congress are paid $174,000 per year. Atlanta city council members, the highest-paid council in Georgia, are paid $72,360.

For any elected official, it’s a risk to publicly support raising your own pay.

“It subjects different lawmakers to [the] political attack of, ‘Oh, they’re self-interested, they ran for office only to just turn around and increase their salary,’” Park says. “Even if it’s a bump from 20,000 to 30,000 a year.”

The General Assembly passed its FY 2024 budget on Wednesday, which includes a $2,000 cost of living pay raise for state employees.

The Georgia state Senate chamber on the first day of the legislative session at the Georgia state Capitol, Jan. 9, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Part-time legislature

With a 40-day session from January to March, Georgia has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the U.S. It’s considered a part-time legislature, which generally pays lawmakers less than full-time legislatures do, such as California ($119,702/year) or Pennsylvania ($95,432/year). Other states’ 2022 legislative salaries can be found here.

Serving in the legislature means that from January to March, lawmakers work at the Capitol in Atlanta and are away from their everyday jobs. Lawmakers in certain professions don’t have the opportunity to earn money from their jobs during the session.

Republican Rep. Matthew Gambill of Cartersville says that serving in the legislature is a financial sacrifice and he couldn’t do it without his full-time job to return to. While not in session, he does business development in the construction industry.

He opposes raising the pay for lawmakers, saying that people should not run for office for the money, but rather, for the public service of what they do.

“When I ran and paid my qualifying fee, it was not to come and earn a salary. And that’s not why I’m here,” Gambill says. “So I try to keep my focus on helping people and I know that everything else will work itself out like it’s supposed to.”

Despite the part-time label, lawmakers work year-round to represent their district. Democrat Rep. Mandisha Thomas of South Fulton is in support of a pay raise that would properly compensate lawmakers for their year-round work. She’s an advocate for raising the minimum wage for all people to $20/hour.

“At $23,000, we’re nowhere near minimum wage for the amount of work that is to be done,” Thomas says. “Constitutionally, we have to be here 40 days a year to make laws and pass a balanced budget. But this is a full-time job. And we’re constantly meeting the needs of our constituents.”

She’s less interested in raising the pay to attract new people to run for office, and more concerned with properly compensating current lawmakers — incentivizing them to do better work.

“I’m focusing on the ones who are actually here not able to be successful,” Thomas says. “They’re not able to be a successful legislator because the income does not match the quality of work. So, if you have low income, you’re gonna get substandard work sometimes.”

Georgia lawmakers gathered at the Capitol on Jan. 25, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Citizen legislature

The General Assembly’s identity as a citizen legislature is critical in the argument for keeping the salary relatively low.

Republican Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem says that it’s important for lawmakers to spend a short amount of time in the session, so they’re able to go home to live and work as normal citizens.

“You don’t want someone to be doing this because it’s their full-time job,” Fleming says. “You want the person here to be a full-time citizen, and to go back and live under the laws that we pass.”

“I need for people to see me in the post office, in the grocery store back in my hometown, and ask me questions about what I’m doing in Atlanta … because that’s probably the best way a representative democracy works,” Fleming says.

He says that the public service of lawmaking is worth the cost of being away from his job for 40 days as an attorney. If the salary is drastically increased, he says the legislature would need to become full-time. Such a move might weaken Georgia’s citizen legislature.

Citizen legislatures are found across the U.S. and are particularly strong in the South, says UGA political science professor Charles Bullock. Though not widespread across the world, the concept dates back millennia.  

“One might be able to trace this all the way back to Cincinnatus perhaps … the Roman who left his plow in the field and went off and serve the public and then went back to plowing his field,” Bullock says. “So the idea that there is value in having a legislature made up of individuals who look like the citizens around them, rather than being professional politicians.”

A professional legislature is associated with higher pay, a longer legislative session and a large staff. Bullock says that Georgia ranks around 40th among the 50 states when it comes to those three dimensions.

Because lawmakers in Georgia are paid so little, he likens it to being a “fun hobby” that is financially unsustainable for many. Without being able to work a full-time job for three months every year, lawmakers must have a certain level of financial security to participate in the citizen legislature.

“It’s certainly not a legislature, which in terms of the vocations of its members, looks anything like the makeup of the state of Georgia,” Bullock says.

Many jobs and careers don’t offer the income or flexibility that allows them to miss work during the legislative session. Because of this, many professions just aren’t represented in the legislature.

But Bullock doesn’t think a significant pay raise would have a big impact on the diversity of the legislative body.

Retirees, business owners and lawyers are common in the legislature. Lawmakers are also older and wealthier than the average Georgian, according to 2022 data compiled by the Atlanta Civic Circle.

“I think both the relatively low pay and the time commitment required for the legislature, it certainly prevents a lot of working-class Georgians from really having an opportunity to have a seat at the table, which is so important, especially to ensure that their everyday experiences and their professional careers can impact the legislative process,” Park says.

When Park first ran for office in 2016, he quit his job as an attorney to dedicate all of his time to the campaign. For a while after his election, the then-$17,324 legislative salary was his only income. He made ends meet while living with his family and taking care of his mother. But it was a big financial challenge and after a few years, he got a job as an attorney at a nonprofit.

sam park
Rep. Sam Park and other Democrats deliver a response to Gov. Brian Kemp’s State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“Many times I’ve heard instances in which, in my opinion, some very qualified candidates decided not to run, just because it was not financially viable for them, in which they would have had to take such a severe pay cut that their family would have otherwise had to bear that brunt of the decline,” Park says. “Whether it’s being unable to make ends meet [or] paying one’s rent or mortgage.”

He also says the low pay can make certain legislators more susceptible to being influenced by money in politics.

For the first time in several years, lawmakers’ salaries weren’t debated in the legislative session. But future efforts to raise the pay are inevitable.

For now, Goergia’s legislature remains a citizen legislature that prioritizes civic duty over salary.

“I think it’s an important issue with a lot of nuance and certainly one that I hope we can make some progress on to ensure that our state governments are as best as they can be given the important work that’s done there,” Park says.

Editor’s Note: The original radio story inaccurately reported that lawmakers received their first pay raise this year, rather than last year.