Pay cuts for judges, state attorneys floated amid COVID-19
By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia lawmakers again Monday raised the idea of imposing salary reductions instead of furloughs for some state employees and elected officials like judges and attorneys amid the need for spending cuts spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
With state prosecutors, public defenders and judges facing weeks of furlough, some members of the Senate Appropriations Judicial Subcommittee on Monday floated temporary pay cuts as a way to trim spending without impairing the court system’s ability to speedily process cases.
“We may have to think outside of the box a little bit,” said Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who chairs the subcommittee. “Would this be better with a salary reduction as opposed to a furlough?”
“It’s just how are we going to do this and what mechanisms are we going to use to get there,” Ligon added.
Salary reductions were mentioned last week as a possible option for the state’s preschool teachers to shoulder some of the financial burden as lawmakers look to cut between $3 billion and $4 billion from the 2021 fiscal year budget. But that notion drew pushback from some lawmakers opposed to pulling wages from teachers.
The General Assembly is set to reconvene later this month and has until July 1 to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Proposed furloughs were outlined Monday amounting to between 13 and 44 days for state prosecutors, 40 days for superior court judges and their staff, 13 days for Georgia Supreme Court justices, 18 days for District Attorney Chris Carr’s office and 24 days for the Georgia Public Defender Council.
With those furlough days, judges and attorneys critical to the court system would be forced to take several days off work at a time when cases have piled up and defendants awaiting trial have stayed imprisoned longer amid the coronavirus pandemic, several state agency heads said Monday.
In practice, judges would likely still report for duty to help clear the case backlog even if furlough days are implemented, said Henry County Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero. He told lawmakers Monday thousands of criminal defendants are currently in jail who need to have their day in court.
“If you furlough [judges], that will just be a word on paper,” Amero said. “We will not be working less. We will be working more.”
“The extent to which this avalanche of work is about to hit superior court judges cannot be overstated,” he added.
Simply slicing salaries could be complicated since doing so would have a secondary effect of reducing an employee’s retirement contribution, which would not happen with furloughs. Also, some elected positions like judges cannot have their compensation changed during their terms in office.
For that reason, justices on the state’s highest court are willing to take voluntary pay cuts, said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton.
“We can voluntarily decline pay,” Melton said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Amid the complications, some lawmakers at Monday’s meeting still pressed agency heads on whether pay reductions could help judges and attorneys keep working to clear their case backlog instead of having them take days off.
Rep. Andrew Welch, who chairs the House Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee, wondered whether temporary salary reductions could provide more savings since the state would not have to contribute as much to retirement plans. But he acknowledged the trickiness of reducing salaries for judges as opposed to furloughs.
“Neither of these are desirable,” said Welch, R-McDonough. “We respect the Constitution but at the same time, I think that’s why we’re asking about alternatives and voluntary need of judges to participate in perhaps that [salary] rate reduction.”
Meanwhile, the state Public Defender Council urged lawmakers Monday to be spared from budget cuts as rising unemployment in the state has driven up the number of cases for public defenders in recent months.
The council’s executive director, Omotayo Alli, said adopting furlough days and other spending cuts needed to meet a 14% budget reduction would impair the ability of Georgia’s public defenders to handle their growing caseloads.
“The criminal justice system is going to crash,” Alli said. “And that is no one’s wish.”
Receiving an exemption from the cuts may be wishful thinking as some lawmakers Monday highlighted the importance for all state-funded agencies and employees to absorb the pain of the coronavirus-prompted budget cuts.
“We’re all in one boat called the state of Georgia,” Ligon said. “Each agency has an oar for keeping that board moving in the right direction and staying above water as we navigate these dangerous rapids caused by [coronavirus].”