ATLANTA — Seven state legislators, including Macon’s David Lucas and Robert Brown, avoided furlough days last year as their colleagues and state employees took days off without pay.
Brown and two other senators said it was merely an oversight in the paperwork needed to authorize the small salary reduction.
“I really thought I had done it,” Brown, the Democratic Party’s minority leader in the Senate, said Tuesday.
But Lucas, one of the longest-serving members of the House of Representatives, said he purposely opted out to make a point. And he went all the way to the state’s attorney general to do so.
Legislators make about $17,300 a year, plus per diems and mileage reimbursements to cover expenses. Their pay is laid out by law, and because of that each legislator had to agree to take furlough days before the reductions in pay could be finalized. Regular state employees and teachers had no such choice when they were furloughed last year.
But Lucas said the Republican House leadership, led up until late last year by Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, tried to force representatives to take the furloughs. He said the state started taking the money out of his paycheck automatically, until he turned to the attorney general for an opinion on the matter.
Lucas also said the Republican majority in control at the state Capitol has its priorities out of whack. He pointed to cuts in the state’s education budget, which come even as Gov. Sonny Perdue recommends another $9.1 million in state funding for a horse park in Houston County, and $10 million for a College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
“I will take the heat (on this),” Lucas said. “Something is wrong with (these budget priorities), and I will not be a part of it.”
The five furlough days would have cost Lucas, Brown and others about $67 each day. Altogether, seven legislators avoiding the furlough days cost the state about $2,345.
The Legislative Fiscal Affairs Office said Tuesday that most state representatives and senators took one furlough day a month from August to December of last year. But in the House, Lucas and state Rep. Earnest “Coach” Williams of Avondale Estates sent letters to the fiscal affairs office, formally declining the days, Office Director Robyn Underwood said.
In the Senate, state Sens. Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain and Valencia Seay of Riverdale declined the furloughs by checking “no” on a form sent out Senate-wide, Underwood said. Three others, Brown and state Sens. Ed Harbison of Columbus and Lester Jackson of Savannah, never returned paperwork needed to process the furloughs, Underwood said.
All seven are Democrats.
Brown’s chief of staff, Ben George, said part of the problem was that the furloughs went into effect well after the 2009 legislative session ended. That made it more difficult to get legislators together. There was “some confusion among our legislators” and, “essentially it was a clerical error on our part,” said George, who works with legislators throughout the Senate Democratic Caucus.
House and Senate leaders on Tuesday announced six new furlough days for legislators, all to be taken later this year. George said the Senate’s full Democratic Caucus will participate. All the GOP’s state senators are on board, too, according to an announcement from their caucus.
Said George: “(This time) I could get the forms and get everybody in one place at one time and get them done.”
Lucas said he’ll decline to participate in these new furloughs as well. Instead of backing furloughs, he called on the Republican majority to act on repeated calls from Democrats to overhaul the state’s sales tax collections methods, giving more power to local governments to audit collections.
A recent pilot study has shown significant discrepancies between state sales tax records and local business license records, signaling that many businesses may be avoiding remitting sales taxes altogether.
Lucas and other Democrats have said overhauling that process probably would bring in enough money to avoid furloughing state employees and teachers, who are each expected to take an average of three unpaid furlough days between now and June 30.
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.