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State legislators nix pay increase amid continuing budget concerns
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With the state’s budget woes looming, lawmakers voted Monday to cancel a scheduled pay increase for themselves for at least a year.

The Legislative Services Committee, a joint group of House and Senate members, voted unanimously to postpone the cost of living increase until at least Dec. 31, 2011.

More than 200 state lawmakers gathered at the University of Georgia in Athens for the three-day conference to prepare for the legislative session that starts Jan. 10.

"In this economy, it’s a logical move," Rep. Doug Collins said. "We’ve got to look out for where we can go with the budget."

The cost of living adjustment would have cost the state $63,000, boosting lawmakers’ base salary of $17,342 by 3 percent. Top lawmakers, including the House speaker and other officers, earn more.

The Legislative Services Committee sets financial policy for the General Assembly and its employees. House Speaker David Ralston, also chairman of the committee, said the move was a good call.

"It’s clearly evident that ‘austere’ is going to be the word with the budget," Sen. Butch Miller said. "The budget crisis isn’t over, and the point is driven home as the federal stimulus dollars that filled in gaps last year won’t be there. It’s out of necessity that we look at our finances and salaries."

Budget concerns clouded the day as legislators attended meetings about solving the tri-state water war and reforming mental health care.

As the keynote speaker of the day, University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll Davis pleaded with lawmakers to make an investment in education.

"One of your more important duties is to make fundamental investment decisions in Georgia’s future," he said. "You will make decisions that impact the hopes and aspirations for the citizens of this state for years to come."

Davis pointed to when lawmakers established the University System of Georgia in 1931 during the Great Depression.

"That’s when times were far worse than they are today, but that was not the attitude taken by Georgia’s elected leaders," he said. "They created a strong public higher education system, which helped society to succeed in building a profitable future."

Just as lawmakers established the GI Bill after World War II to help veterans get a better education, Davis said he hopes today’s lawmakers will make moves to bolster the state’s K-12 and college systems.

"When you are investing in the education of one person, you really are investing in the potential of succeeding generations," he said. "Statistics show if one or both parents have some college, then the odds of their children going to college increases exponentially, and that educated work force earns more, volunteers more and pays a lot more taxes."

Davis didn’t expand on recent budget concerns about the HOPE scholarship or the state’s tuition rates, but he emphasized that the college system is state-driven and must be handled by the state legislators.

"America’s students produce transformative ideas and technologies and companies such as Google and Facebook, which are returns we see decade after decade from sustained public education," he said. "We’re investing not just in buildings or laboratories but people who create transforming ideas that develop into companies, industries and jobs, jobs and more jobs."