Legislators Keep Staff Lean as Budget Symbol; It's Hard to Find a Fat Cat as State Ranks among the Tightest Nationwide

Article excerpt

Byline: WALTER C. JONES

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.

However, some agencies lost more. The Department of Natural Resources 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 before the recession forced states to cut back, Georgia spent $3.89 on legislative staffing 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.

"Typically, it's a type of lean, mean organization in the states, particularly in this budget year," said Sujit Canaga-Retna, 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 like Indiana, Kansas and Nevada, all with much smaller populations. Most states have more. The midrange states have 3.1 staffers to every lawmaker while states like 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 the Senate staffing as president pro tempore.

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

During the four months of each year's legislative session, platoons of part-time workers round out the staff, from retirees who man the doors and print copies of bills to college interns who research policy matters.

The total number of staffers dropped 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2009 and then again by 5.4 percent in the last fiscal year, according to figures released to The Times-Union 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. …