Legislators said they were disappointed. Sen. Seth Harp, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committees Subcommittee on Higher Education, said leaders should make the first sacrifice.
Sen. John Douglas, the secretary of the subcommittee, suggested that University of Georgia President Michael Adams give up his $125,000 salary supplement to his $600,000 base pay.
"I don't even make $125,000," said Douglas, R-Social Circle.
The head of the largest state agency outside of the University System, B.J. Walker, earned $164,000 last year at the Department of Human Resources. Gov. Sonny Perdue made less than $140,000.
Yet, more than 18 people at UGA alone make more than $200,000.
Chancellor Erroll Davis told the members of the House and Senate higher education subcommittees Wednesday that cutting pay wasn't an option because keeping senior people was a priority.
"One of the tenets of business is you pay people competitive wages," he said, noting that not only is his background in the energy business rather than a career in academia but that he also sits on the boards of two private universities that are actively poaching public colleges that cut pay.
Besides, the presidents of Georgia's public universities earn less than comparable schools in the Southeast, he said.
Legislators are facing two politically unpopular choices, cutting education or raising taxes.
To see how unpopular cutting education might be, the subcommittees asked Davis for a list of cuts that would total $300 million, the amount of a tax increase Perdue is recommending. Davis' list was not to include tuition increases.
Lawmakers learned quickly how unpopular cuts can be when the protests began.
They also got a reminder last week of how unpopular taxes are. A coalition of anti-smoking groups released a poll showing 71 percent of those surveyed the prior week opposed increasing the sales tax, 78 percent opposed increasing the income tax, 81 percent opposed Perdue's tax on hospitals and medical plans, and 85 percent rejected adding back the sales tax on groceries. The survey, which has a 4 percent margin of error, did show that 71 percent favor a higher tobacco tax.
Given two unpopular choices, why not look for a third option? That's what legislators did Monday after Davis released his initial list. They asked him for information on specific ranges of cuts.
Cutting all pay 1 percent would yield $10 million in savings, he told them Wednesday. To get the whole $300 million would take a 28 percent pay cut.
Besides the impact on morale, take-home pay has already been cut 5.5 percent from furloughs and increases in the employee share of health insurance.
Within the system, 70 percent of the 50,000 employees earn less than $50,000, and 92 percent earn less than $200,000 because only one of every five workers in the system is a faculty member.
Rep. Bill Hembree, the former chairman of the Higher Education Committee and now Rules chairman, reminded Davis that with a record 10.4 percent unemployment rate, many parents and taxpayers are happy just to have a job.
The frustrating thing for lawmakers is that no matter what they suggest, the Board of Regents is free to do whatever it wants, thanks to independence spelled out in the constitution.