The GOP debate over a minimum wage for cops and deputies

According to a study based on census data, recently highlighted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, some 3,200 members of this state’s law enforcement community — bailiffs, prison guards, jailers, beat cops and deputy sheriffs — are food stamp recipients.

“That’s probably correct,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association.

But it is only a rough estimate. By the end of this fall, before the Legislature gathers, Norris wants a more definitive assessment of how many cops and deputies “would actually be eligible for public assistance.”

The push by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association for a mandatory minimum wage for those who wear a badge is already an established feature of the 2018 Republican race for governor. Earlier this year, state Sen. Michael Williams of Cumming introduced Senate Bill 254, which would set a pay floor for deputy sheriffs.

A task force looking at base pay for cops and deputies, set up by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in May, held its most recent meeting last Tuesday, with Norris’ group.

David Shafer, the Senate president pro tem, who wants to replace Cagle as lieutenant governor, has backed — along with Williams –a refundable state income tax credit for Georgia law enforcement officers. Which would essentially be a state salary subsidy.

But there are also Republicans, inside and outside the race for governor, who see a state-mandated law enforcement salary as a can of worms.

“I won’t pander, play politics, or make empty promises to our brave men and women in uniform,” said Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a GOP candidate for governor. He called for a “robust conversation” with all parties.

You can put state Sen. Hunter Hill, another Republican gubernatorial hopeful, among the opponents. “Local governments don’t need career politicians in Atlanta forcing unfunded mandates on their budgets,” he said. “Let communities decide how best to allocate their public safety dollars — not state government.”

But the harshest assessment this week came from the office of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

“A state-mandated salary for local law enforcement carries with it broad policy implications. Among the considerations are what would it cost, who would pay for it and what state-level controls would need to accompany such funding,” wrote Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for Ralston, in an email. “At the heart of this issue would likely be an erosion of local control over law enforcement, and that is not something to take lightly.”

The debate is emotional, complicated, and very much tied to the hard times that rural Georgia is going through. Moreover, the direct correlation between good pay and quality policing is indisputable. Everyone understands that.

Everyone in the state Capitol also knows exactly when this debate began. And who started it.

Last Sept. 8, Gov. Nathan Deal declared he would push for a 20 percent pay increase for state law enforcement officers (and an overhaul of training to include more courses on use of force after a summer of violence and unrest elsewhere in the nation).

Six months later, the Legislature gave its approval. The cost to hike the pay for 3,300 state law enforcement officers by an average of $8,000 was $79 million.

The governor said he was tired of watching state patrol officers leave for the higher salaries offered by metro Atlanta police departments.

The move immediately boosted state patrol pay in Georgia from 50th in the nation to 24th. But it also meant that only 19 of Georgia’s 159 counties could match the new starting pay for a trained, starting trooper: $35,741 a year.

Statewide, deputy starting pay is just over $29,000. According to the state Department of Community Affairs, the bottom 19 counties average $25,500 when it comes to starting pay for deputies. But in Irwin and Jenkins counties, both below the Gnat Line, the figure is $20,800 a year.

The federal poverty level for a family of three is an income of $20,420 or less.

Norris, the head of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, doesn’t think state troopers are overpaid. “And I’m glad the governor has done what he did,” he said. “But it has shone a broad, bright light on a real problem in our state.”

The lowest-paid officers in Georgia are doing most of the bleeding. “Local police officers and deputy sheriffs executed 95 percent of all arrests in 2016,” Norris said. “We lost nine officers in 2016. Seven were local officers.”

The sheriff’s association would like to see something along the lines of Williams’ bill that would set a minimum wage for law enforcement officers, partially subsidized by the state. Norris noted that the state’s Quality Basic Education Act, which dates to the 1980s, did something like that for public school teachers.

“There’s already a precedent there,” Norris said.

SB 254, introduced by Williams, never even won a hearing last session. But that bill, or another like it, could spring to life when lawmakers return in January. (If it does, watch for firefighters and paramedics to demand to be included in the conversation.)

Norris acknowledged a Capitol reluctance to discuss the issue. “We didn’t get many people talking to us about this compensation issue. They wanted to say it’s a local issue. We respectfully disagree with that,” Norris said.

The state of Georgia has imposed enough mandates on sheriff’s departments to warrant a share of the cost, he said. “Everything I do as a deputy sheriff is governed by the state — my qualifications, my training requirements. It’s all done because state law requires it to be done a certain way,” he said.

How to pay for a minimum wage is the key to moving the conversation along. County sheriffs don’t want hikes in local property taxes. In many parts of Georgia, the tax base simply isn’t there. And they are elected officials. A statewide penny sales tax, or a portion of one, is one idea that’s being kicked around.

Cagle’s task force, Norris notes, includes members who don’t want a mandatory minimum salary for law enforcement. But he said the task force might be able to come up a way to provide health insurance for the many law enforcement officers who don’t have it. Some counties can’t afford it.

That would be another interesting statistic for Norris to pursue. It’s not just food stamps. Find out how many members of Georgia’s law enforcement community are on Medicaid.

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