Lawmakers spend less amid cuts

Georgia among leanest states in legislative staff

ATLANTA --- While Georgia legislators were trimming the budgets, they whittled down their own spending, but not by as much as they cut from some agencies.


The General Assembly has cut its own budget 15 percent since the state budget began shrinking from the effects of the recession in 2009, and it returned $1.3 million of unspent funds to the treasury last year. The average state agency's funding shrank 17 percent in the same period.

Some agencies lost more. The Department of Natural Resources, for instance, lost 29 percent of its 2009 appropriation.

By most measures, Georgia legislators have always had a lean staff -- the leanest in terms of spending per constituent.

At the height of state spending, Georgia spent $3.89 on legislative staff for every person in the state, which is about one-third of the national average of $9.41, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Although the conference hasn't recalculated the ratios, Georgia's population has continued to grow while the staffing level shrank since the 2008 study.

"Typically, it's a type of lean, mean organization in the states, particularly in this budget year," said Sujit CanagaRetna, a policy analyst with the conference.

When the conference compared the ratio of staffers to lawmakers, Georgia is still considered among the leanest. There are currently two members of the House for every staffer and slightly more than one staffer for every senator.

It puts Georgia in the company of states such as Indiana, Kansas and Nevada, all with much smaller populations. Midrange states have 3.1 staffers to every lawmaker while states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania average 8.9 for each legislator.

"Georgia has the ninth-largest population in the country, yet also has the smallest state general-assembly budget per capita in the nation," said Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who oversees Senate staffing as president pro tempore.

Employees don't work exclusively for individual lawmakers. Each senator shares a full-time secretary with one other colleague and as many as three members of the House share a secretary.

Major committees have a dedicated staffer while the minor committees share a staffer with one or two other committees.

During the four months of each year's legislative session, part-time workers round out the staff.

The total number of staffers dropped 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2009 and again by 5.4 percent in the last fiscal year, according to figures released to Morris News in response to a request under the state's Open Records Act.

In terms of pay last year, 28 percent earn less than $5,000. Another 55 percent earn from $5,000 to $50,000, with 15 percent making from $50,000 to $100,000. And 13 members of the staff draw more than $100,000.

Staff reductions have come from the midrange earners, while the bottom rung has remained the same the past two years.

A FEW LEGISLATORS have found other ways to fund added staff.

The caucuses for each party use member dues and contributions to pay their workers. Many of the employees the leaders depend on are paid or supplemented through political contributions.

For instance, House Speaker David Ralston's campaign-finance reports for last year show he covered the travel and other expenses for his chief of staff, legal counsel and press secretary. His predecessor, Glenn Richardson, paid his press secretary with funds from a political-action committee.

Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, pays two staffers from his political coffers, according to his campaign-finance reports.

Usually, those campaign expenditures are small. Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, paid an aide from his campaign who was not on the state payroll $500 every two weeks during last year's session, along with the utilities for his district office. Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, paid $400 once to a woman listed as a legislative aide and $700 once to someone listed as a district aide last year.

Even freshman Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, has a full-time aide paid through outside sources, while a handful of lawmakers rely on a spouse, as former Rep. Burke Day, R-Tybee Island, did after he became wheelchair bound.

Harbin hired a recent college graduate, Matthew Liner, as an aide this session.

"He works real hard, and I'm glad to have him," said Harbin.

From Liner's point of view, the education is valuable, and the pace is brisk.

"It's actually a little more busy than I expected," he said.

NOT UNCOMMON IS for lawmakers who run their own businesses to merely ask their private staff to type letters or take phone messages from constituents.

Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, said it's a practice he inherited from his father who held the same House seat.

"It's automatic in our operation, if the public calls, family and members of the operation know how to respond," he said. "That just goes back to being a long-standing person in the community."

Lawmakers have a $7,000 yearly allowance they can tap for clerical help. They have until April each year to submit receipts for reimbursement.

In 2009, according to another Open Records request, senators spent all but $108,000 of their total allotment, but last year they left $139,000 unspent. In the House, representatives left $314,000 in 2009 and $336,000 last year.

The need for it depends on the district, according to Nathan Humphrey, the chief of staff to the Senate president pro tempore who oversees the day-to-day operation of the Senate.

People living in some districts become reliant on a senator or representative to cut through bureaucratic red tape while other districts demand less in terms of constituent services.

Lawmakers who are retired usually do the work themselves, such as Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.

Since that peak in June 2008, Georgia's staffing levels have declined.

The House has shed 13 percent of its employees and the Senate 7 percent, trimming total salaries by 12 percent each.

House Speaker David Ralston said egislative leaders consider it important to experience the same cutbacks others in government were feeling.

"Last year and the year before when we were furloughing state employees, we imposed a furlough on ourselves because we thought that it set a good example to say we would not ask an employee anything that which we would not do," he said last week.

Sunshine Week

Today kicks off Sunshine Week, an initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors that serves to educate the public about a critical component of democracy: open access to government information.


Find out what kinds of information have been requested from the governments in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties through the Open Records laws, and the outcomes of those requests.



UNPAID PROPERTY TAX BILLS: Find unpaid real estate and personal property taxes as of Dec. 31, 2010.

UNCLAIMED IRS REFUNDS: Find out whether the IRS owes you money and learn how to get your check.

Public salaries

- School employees (Richmond and Columbia counties)

- Augusta State University and Augusta Tech salaries (March 2011)

- Columbia County employees

- Augusta-Richmond County employees (2009 & 2010)

- MCG administrators (2005, 2009, 2010)