Originally created 09/13/98

Voters to decide pay, lottery issues



ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers are hoping voters this fall will take one decision out of the hands of future General Assemblies and give them political cover for another.

Voters will decide in one proposed constitutional amendment whether to limit how state lottery proceeds are used to keep future state leaders from diluting funding for HOPE college scholarships and pre-kindergarten classes.

And lawmakers want voter approval for a compensation commission that would recommend the salaries of elected officials in hopes of backing up their future decisions to grant pay raises.

Voters may have a hard time figuring out why the lottery amendment is even necessary.

After all, HOPE, which provides a tuition-free public college education to B students and pre-kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds, is so popular in Georgia it would likely be political suicide for lawmakers to mess with it.

State Rep. Roy Barnes, D-Mableton, and Republican temporary services magnate Guy Millner, the two leading gubernatorial candidates, have both voiced support for the lottery-funded programs.

In fact, Mr. Barnes had a hand in the amendment that is before voters Nov. 3.

However, outgoing Gov. Zell Miller, the father of the Georgia lottery, HOPE and pre-K, worries that future politicians may find other uses for the money.

"In the short term, no elected official in their right mind is going to tamper with these successful programs," said Secretary of State Lewis Massey, who pushed the legislation earlier this year to put the proposed amendment on the ballot.

"I don't think there is any risk in the short term, but I think in the long term, six, eight, 10 years down the road, priorities might change."

Essentially, the proposed amendment, No. 2 on the ballot, would set a pecking order for lottery proceeds.

The money would go to HOPE, pre-K, and a reserve fund before anything could be spent on other things, like school technology or construction.

The biggest opposition in the General Assembly came from lawmakers in fast-growing counties. Lottery money has been used in recent years to fund millions of dollars worth of school construction in suburban systems.

With Georgia still growing, pressure will only increase on lawmakers to come up with money to build schools.

Georgia has one of two lotteries in the country that has continued to grow in sales throughout its first five years in existence.

However, no one expects that run to last. If the amendment passes and sales dip, little may be left for anything but HOPE, pre-kindergarten and the reserve fund.

Another proposed amendment, No. 5, sets up the Georgia Compensation Commission, which would recommend the pay of state elected officials, lawmakers, members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Superior Court judges and district attorneys.

The wording of the amendment makes it sound as if the commission would take the General Assembly out of the business of granting pay hikes.

But Republicans argued that was akin to creating a "pay raise commission," allowing legislators to reap the benefits without having to take the political heat.

So if the amendment passes and the commission decides compensation should be changed for, say, the governor or local district attorneys, the General Assembly will still have to vote on the recommendation.

"The whole intent was to inject an outside source to look at it objectively," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez. "We've still got to be held accountable."

Because elected officials answer directly to voters, they often make far less than the people under them running state agencies.

For instance, the compensation for the chancellor of the University System of Georgia is more than double what the governor is paid. The commissioner of transportation makes far more than the superintendent of schools, even though the Department of Education's budget is three times that of the Department of Transportation.

The difference is the governor and the school superintendent are elected, and their salaries are set by the General Assembly. The chancellor and DOT commissioner are hired by state boards, which set their salaries.

Mr. Harbin said the commission is "just another step" that would be taken before lawmakers consider pay raises for elected officials.

"If we think it (pay) is too low, we should raise it and we should explain it," he said.

The lottery amendment is expected to pass rather easily. The compensation commission is a different story.

"I think it has to be sold correctly," Mr. Harbin said. "If it looks like a commission that's there to give pay raises to elected officials (it won't pass)."