Georgia lawmakers have been racing through the 2014 legislative session faster than NASCAR drivers, and for many observers frightened by the prospect of 236 politicians together for a lengthy period of time, that’s a good thing.
Lawmakers want to return to their districts earlier this year. Why? The political party primaries are being held on May 20, two months earlier than normal, and elected officials want more time to campaign.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle talked about the financial benefits of a short legislative session.
"For every week that we’re able to cut off our timeline, it saves us approximately $100,000," the Republican said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
PolitiFact Georgia decided to whip out its calculator to see whether Cagle’s math was correct.
The Georgia House of Representatives and Senate typically begin their 40-day legislative session in early January and typically finish around the end of March or early April. The end of the session, or "sine die" as lawmakers call it, is scheduled for March 20 this year.
The state Capitol can seem as frenetic as a NASCAR driver’s pit crew during the legislative session. Lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and visitors roam the halls for various meetings during those 40 days as the Legislature passes legislation that has an impact on all 10 million Georgians. The Legislature hires additional people to help during the session, but it comes at a cost.
Slightly more than 200 aides and interns are temporarily working this session, Cagle’s staff said. Those additional workers are paid about $93,000 a week, Cagle’s office said.
We asked Cagle’s office for information to back up the numbers. It took some time, but they eventually came our way. Cagle’s office sent us two sets of weekly payroll data for the temporary session staff. The first was for the week ending Jan. 19. The total was $96,666.94. The other was for the week ending Feb. 9. The total was $96,673.79.
The longer the Legislature is in session, the more it costs to pay those additional workers. A 40-day session stretched over 90 days would be more expensive than a 40-day session stretched over 60 days.
Cagle’s spokesman, Ben Fry, said the temporary session staff is one of three factors that the lieutenant governor had in mind when he made his statement. The second is the cost to the state for lawmakers to drive to and from the state Capitol each week.
Legislators receive round-trip mileage reimbursement once a week for travel to and from Atlanta. All 236 lawmakers are eligible to get about 56 cents -- the federal standard -- for each mile they drive. The weekly total? It’s at least $20,000, Cagle said. Each lawmaker would drive an average of about 150 miles round-trip to get to that $20,000 estimate.
Other Georgia lawmakers have written about the taxpayer savings of a more condensed legislative session, citing similar numbers for the cost of temporary staff.
"For every week the General Assembly is in session, temporary staff in both chambers cost the state approximately $93,000 per week in payroll – and that’s not even including the savings from legislator per diem," Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, wrote in an item on GaPundit.com.
Ah, what about the per diem? Shouldn’t that be included in the cost? That brings us to the third factor Cagle had in mind.
Georgia lawmakers currently get a daily per diem of $173 for travel and other expenses. That adds up to about $200,000 a week. Adding the per diem to the cost of temporary session staff increases the weekly cost to about $300,000. Wouldn’t that mean Cagle underestimated the weekly total cost?
"That cost (of giving lawmakers a per diem for 40 days) is the same regardless of how the session goes," said Fry, Cagle’s spokesman.
Fry said the savings would come from what he described as "sandwich days." These are weekdays when the Legislature is not in session. Lawmakers can still request the $173 per diem. Fry said it’s difficult to come up with an estimate of how much those days cost taxpayers, but he said it can add up.
To sum up, Cagle said the state could save $100,000 for each week the Legislature can reduce their session schedule.
Cagle’s argument is the longer the Legislature is in session, the more it costs Georgia taxpayers.
The lieutenant governor’s statement is correct that it costs a good bit of money to operate when the Legislature is in session, if you consider the cost of temporary staff alone. If you consider the regular per diem costs, Cagle’s weekly estimate of $100,000 seems too conservative.
We rate his statement True.