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Georgia leaders want to pay bonuses to many state workers

ATLANTA – Georgia officials are proposing one-time bonuses of $1,000 to many state employees who make less than $80,000 a year.

Gov. Brian Kemp, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, all Republicans, announced the plan Wednesday. They said they wanted to recognize the hard work of employees during the pandemic.

“Our state employees work incredibly hard despite the global pandemic,” Kemp said. “They have to be going above and beyond the call of duty to deliver essential services to our most vulnerable, keeping our businesses open and delivering financial assistance to those that quite honestly many days were losing hope.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, said the bonuses would come from money the state won’t have to spend on the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program because the federal government is picking up a greater share of the program during the pandemic.

Ralston said overall spending on the state employee bonuses would be $59.6 million, covering about 57,000 employees.

Both teachers and state employees are getting extra pay because of federal spending. Kemp and state Superintendent Richard Woods already announced a plan to pay $1,000 bonuses to K-12 school employees using federal coronavirus relief money, a plan the state Board of Education is likely to consider later this month.

Both teachers and state employees are unlikely to see the whole $1,000 after taxes, health insurance and retirement contributions, officials said.

Neither set of bonuses will include University System of Georgia employees, but Ralston and Tillery both said regents could act to supplement university system employee pay. Spokesperson Aaron Diamant said action by the system is likely.

“We are aware of the discussions and the possibility of this action and will mirror the state plan,” Diamant said.

The move also recognizes a growing sense among agency heads that their employees are underpaid. State prison and juvenile justice officers are in line for 10% pay increases in the amended budget under consideration, while lawmakers are proposing money that would allow additional ranks and pay for educational credentials for state troopers.

Department of Administrative Services report said there were nearly 65,000 state workers overall as of June 30, 2020. The largest groups of state employees work in job classifications with pay averaging $37,000 to $47,000 a year.

The bonuses would be included in the current budget for the year ending June 30. House and Senate lawmakers are ironing out final changes to the spending plan and could agree to a yearly budget as early as Thursday, Tillery said. Total state spending in that document will be $26.6 billion, with lawmakers agreeing with Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to add back $567 million to the state’s K-12 school funding formula. There’s also extra money lawmakers have added for the Department of Public Health in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bonuses are being planned despite a clause in the state Constitution that bans “extra compensation to any public officer, agent, or contractor after the service has been rendered or the contract entered into.” Tillery said the spending would be legal because it would be treated as a one-time pay raise.