When it comes to handing out taxpayers’ money, the governor and the General Assembly sometimes seem more willing to direct those funds to people who don’t really need them instead of those who really do.
We have seen that tendency on full display during the early weeks of the current legislative session.
Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed the health insurance coverage provided to bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other public school employees classified as “non-certified” personnel be cut from the state budget.
This idea strikes many people as less than kind. School bus drivers and food service employees are already among the lowest-paid public workers, often making less than an entry-level Wal-Mart employee.
Many of them take these jobs not for the meager pay involved, but because it enables them to have access to health insurance coverage.
Deal says these employees shouldn’t be covered by the State Health Benefits Plan because they work part-time.
By cutting their insurance coverage, the governor noted, the state could save an estimated $103 million a year.
“We have to be mindful that to require someone to work at least 30 hours (to receive coverage) is also a requirement we have for other state employees,” Deal said.
There are a couple of points that should be noted here.
Legislators are also eligible for state health coverage, but they work during that limited period when the General Assembly is in session — which the constitution restricts to 40 days a year. Some lawmakers do come to the Capitol after the session to attend committee meetings, but that adds only 10 or 20 days to their official work load. However, no one is proposing legislators should be stripped of their health insurance.
As for a potential $103 million in savings, we are already spending more than four times that amount in tax funds to build and operate a football stadium for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, so that argument doesn’t really hold water.
While our elected officials talk about dropping health insurance coverage for the lowest-paid workers, they are being asked to approve salary bumps for those who are already among the most highly compensated public employees.
University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby has urged legislators to give college professors a raise because other states pay higher salaries and might lure some of them away.
The average salary of a full professor at the University of Georgia is about $109,000 a year — which is a lot more than what bus drivers are paid and considerably more than the average worker earns.
Chief Justice Hugh Thompson of the Georgia Supreme Court asked lawmakers to give pay raises to the state’s judges.
“For the sake of attracting and retaining the highest-qualified judges at all levels — both trial and appellate — we must be properly compensated based on a pay scale that makes sense,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s salary was $168,947 during the most recent fiscal year, and his Supreme Court colleagues were paid $167,209. Court of Appeals judges were paid $166,186. Superior Court judges make a base salary of $120,252 and many of them also receive supplemental pay from their county commission.
I don’t mean to imply any of these jurists don’t work hard and don’t deserve the salaries they get. But no one is saying they should lose their health insurance coverage.
The proposal to eliminate health insurance has drawn criticism from some legislators, particularly those from rural areas. They know that without these employees, their constituents’ kids couldn’t make it to school and wouldn’t be fed if they did get there.
“Cafeteria workers may only work five or six hours a day, but that’s five or six of the hardest hours you’ll ever work,” said Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. “You’ll find it difficult to operate a school without filling those positions.”
Hill knows what he is talking about. His father, the late Wilton Hill, for many years was the director of the Georgia School Bus Drivers Association and worked diligently to get that health insurance coverage for them.
People are entitled to a fair compensation for the work they do, regardless of whether they’re a judge or a bus driver. I hope that we don’t reward the one while we punish the other.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.