Charlie Harper: More Leaving State Legislature
Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
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 have 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.
Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.