More Leaving State Legislature

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The Georgia General Assembly has gaveled out sine die and members have returned home from Atlanta. The Easter holiday will likely be the only down time for many as May 24th primaries for legislative and congressional offices are less than two months away.

Many of those who have chosen to stand for re-election have primary opponents. In an era where support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both demonstrate lack of support for the status quo, virtually every primary opponent must be taken seriously.

Others have decided their time as a citizen legislator has come to an end. Some such as Senators Tommie Williams of Lyons and Bill Jackson of Appling, as well as Representative Joe Wilkinson of Dunwoody resemble what we would traditionally call a retirement. They have many years of honorable service under their belt and it’s perhaps time to simplify matters to enjoy life a bit.

There are others who are leaving that offer a glimpse into a troubling trend within the ranks of the general assembly. They are leaving despite being relatively early in their career and with potential significant upward mobility in leadership positions still ahead.

Leading this list is House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City. Ramsey earlier passed on a contest to replace retiring Congressman Lynn Westmoreland and then surprised many Capitol observers with the announcement that he would not seek re-election either.

Others that have also decided to take a pass include Mike Dudgeon of Johns Creek and B. J. Pak of Lilburn. Like Ramsey, both cited growing professional obligations as part of the reason why they have decided to turn their efforts away from the happenings under Atlanta’s gold dome.

Pak and Ramsey are both practicing attorneys. There’s something about people who bill their time hourly in order to make a living that allows them to internalize the value of opportunity cost. The harsh but rarely spoken reality of legislative public service is that it is getting harder and harder to justify the time commitment of serving in the legislature from a financial perspective.

The salary of a state legislature is about $17,000 per year. This “part time” job takes up 40 official days per year, but legislators can expect to spend 3 months minimum in Atlanta, and in some years that commitment has stretched to almost 5.

The reality, however, is that the time commitment is year round. Legislation is crafted throughout the year via study committee or other engagements. Civic and partisan groups have a myriad of breakfasts, luncheons, and receptions where attendance of the local legislator is expected.

While many have visions that legislators make up for this pay with various unspoken perks, most slog through the year eating cold sandwiches brought in to working meetings or other banquet food that would hardly pass for home cooking. Even the occasional upscale restaurant meal is small compensation for time away from family.

Then, there’s the declining perception of our public servants in this age of Trump. An increasingly angry public seems now to reserve the right to question the character and motivations of anyone for even having the temerity to offer themselves for public service, much less for getting themselves elected.

Six years ago I ran into one of those also retiring this year, Representative Stephen Allison of Blairsville, outside the House Chamber on the day after Sine Die. Legislators were cleaning out their offices and in a passing conversation he asked “how did we do”. I gave him a perhaps an overly harsh grade for the concluded session. Our chance conversation ended up lasting almost two hours.

I gave him an earful about the perception of legislative excesses and abuses that I had frequently been writing about. I noted that the reform bill they had passed didn’t go far enough to cure them.

He responded with direct and candid talk about what he did – and didn’t do – as a legislator. He noted that he had to give up legal clients for a good part of the year. That he missed getting to participate in a lot of family activities during the session. That he went home every night rather than participating in a lot of the Atlanta receptions and what not that some undertake when the legislature is in session.

He asked that I consider looking at legislators as individuals rather than “paint with a broad brush”. Many are just giving up time trying to make the state a better place at a direct personal and professional cost to them and their families. And on top of that, they now had to deal with social and print media’s increasing negativity.

I’ve not forgotten that conversation. And as I’ve gotten to know many more members and the general lack of glamour that surrounds the work of the legislators I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Legislators are underpaid, as evidenced by the numbers who are not only not running for re-election but those that are leaving mid-term when career opportunities call. And there’s no way I would put up with what is expected of a legislative “public servant” these days for their compensation package, including all of the “perks” that are more rooted in myth than reality for most legislators.

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SaltycrackerWill DurantRestingBitchFaceCharliegcp Recent comment authors
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John Stoj
John Stoj

Coincidence – early this morning I had the below exchange with someone on my FB feed: Rxx Wxxxxx: Then we have a different definition of “best and brightest”. If an individual can’t find a way to expand their personal fortune without peddling the influence and contacts they made while sucking the government tit, then I would say they’re not nearly as “best and brightest” as they think they are. And the brutal truth is we don’t attract the truly best and brightest to run for office, at least at a Federal level. What we end up with are opportunists like… Read more »

gcp
gcp

Not sure I would say legislators are underpaid because in addition to salery they do get a pretty good per diem. Regular turnover of legislators is often healthy and we need more of it, particularly at the federal level. I can however, think of one or two legislators at the state level that should have departed years ago.

RestingBitchFace
RestingBitchFace

In addition to the many fine points made in the post, and in the comments; if you are not self employed or independently wealthy, finding employment the rest of the year can be especially challenging. Many companies would point out that they can’t accommodate staff who isn’t present for 3-4 months, or who’s politics would conflict with theirs, or the numerous conflicts of interest with the necessary fundraising. I recently asked a candidate did they think there was something not quite right about the fact they were planning to raise $75,000 to run for a $17,000 a year job? Is… Read more »

Will Durant
Will Durant

Don Balfour once claimed per diem for 70% of the work days one year without even discounting for typical vacation days. I still wonder how he was able to hold down his CFO post at Waffle House. Renee Unterman is pulling in more than $100K to her campaign fund per cycle even though she has been running unopposed. Georgia has had some selfless public servants in the past. They have also had an abundance of the opposite. Some look as if they were recruited from the sales force of a buy here/pay here used car lot or from a convention… Read more »

gcp
gcp

If we increased their salary we would still get the same quality legislator; some would be good, others not so good. It’s a part-time position and they should be paid for a part-time position.

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

We sure got what we overpaid for this session. Most seem to find politics an avenue to connect to a substantial improvement in their life (money or power) while poorly and inefficiently serving their constituents. Once they get to their comfort power/income level and morph into someone else, they become unreachable outside a circle.

The problem might be they meet too often and are compelled to spend incredible time on nonsense to avoid the important stuff.

Term limits or meet every other year or both.