The ideal behind Georgia’s legislature is as old as the republic: a band of “citizen legislators” put down their plows for a few weeks to do a civic duty then return to normal lives. But public documents give a glimpse at how much older, richer and self-employed our Georgia lawmakers actually are than the rest of us.
We’re going to do this in the form of a quiz.
A note on sources first: Most of this data comes from 2020 — very little official info on state lawmakers is any newer, and none of it is guaranteed to be consistent from document to document, or to be complete. We’re going on what legislators put on their official Georgia General Assembly bios, filings with the state ethics office and declarations when they ran for office.
You have to be 21 or older to join the Georgia House and 25 for the Senate. How old is the typical legislator? (Click the “+” for an answer ➡️)
Well, OK how much older are Republican lawmakers than Democrats?
So how many of Georgia’s 236 legislators are retirees?
What’s the most common job among lawmakers?
“Lawyer” wins in a way: about 13% of legislators say they’re lawyers; there might be more among the retirees.
But looked at another way, “owners” have a good claim on the top spot too. About 10% of lawmakers use the word “owner” somewhere in one of their public documents — owner of a restaurant, a consultancy, a funeral home or two, a quadruplex or so.
Add to that the self-employed farmers, doctors, lawyers and unspecified “businessmen” and you get near 60 people who are likely to be the boss.
So that means maybe a quarter of lawmakers, give or take, are self-employed. That’s more than twice the national rate of self-employment.
Lawmakers regularly take up business that affects their industries and they tend to say they’re bringing expertise to the table and they can keep their or their employers’ interests separate from their own.
But one man’s “expertise” might just be another man’s “conflict of interest,” however.
Take rental property. Georgia has relatively weak tenant protections and plenty of lawmakers on are on guard against cities or counties trying to pass stronger tenant protection laws. House Bill 1093, for example, would cut off state funding to any cities or counties that approve strong tenant protections. Four of the bill’s top six sponsors indicate somewhere on some state documents that they own or manage rental houses or rental companies.
In fact, lawmakers are disproportionately property owners. Check the next question.
Georgia’s home ownership rate is about 67%. What’s the property ownership rate among legislators?
A lot more questions came up at ACC as we talked about this data project. How many legislators are foreign-born? What’s the racial breakdown under the Gold Dome? What’s the distribution of college degrees? Who’s the richest legislator? How many have access to additional wealth in a spouse’s name or a company’s name? Are these disclosures accurate?
It’s not possible to answer any of those questions fully with public information.
But here’s the thing — the logical end of the system here is that the retired, the rich and the self-employed should run it.
Just running for office can cost more than the job pays, so it’s easier for candidates who can write themselves a six-figure check or who have rich parents and friends.
The job pays about $15,000 this year, so any aspiring lawmaker needs either money in the bank or a workplace so permissible they can ditch it three months a year.
Three months a year, that is, plus constituent calls and community meetings and problems year-round. (OK and maybe a junket or two.)
There’s an argument that being a lawmaker is in fact a full-time job, and that lawmakers should be paid more so that wealth isn’t a prerequisite to office and so that people can turn their whole to the work. A few states like California, New York and Pennsylvania work like this.
The related expectation is that year-round lawmakers become policy experts or use state-paid policy researchers instead of leaning on lobbyists for things like drafting bills. (Yes, lobbyists literally give the draft bill language they want to Georgia legislators.)
Georgia legislators set their own pay, and they set it toward the bottom of the national legislative pay scale. The last raise was in 2007, meaning that in real terms, their salary is worth less than it was 15 years ago.
But it would be really hard for any legislator to sell their constituents or many of their colleagues on a pay raise.
Some states take a middle path: tie legislator salary to median state income so that lawmaker salaries rise with the state’s fortunes.
About a quarter-century ago, some Georgia lawmakers started making noise for higher pay and more staff support because they thought it was becoming impossible to hold down a regular job and be a lawmaker. At that time, only four lawmakers listed themselves as “retired.”
And back then, one lawmaker suggested the legislature would become a “sea of mediocrity” if only rich people could afford to be in the House or Senate.
But propose higher legislator pay in Georgia or new legislative staff and you’re liable to get the semi-serious reply that the state is better-off when the legislators go home.
But is it? Let us know what you think and tag us on social media.