AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia Chamber honors pol seeking minimum wage for insurance agents

The state's business lobby has opposed increasing the minimum wage for Georgians who work low-paying jobs, but that didn't stop it from recently honoring a lawmaker seeking a minimum commission for insurance agents.

Each year the Georgia Chamber hands out awards to prominent lawmakers at the business lobby's annual shindig at the King & Prince Beach and Golf Resort on St. Simons Island. The chamber spends $15,000 to $20,000 hosting dozens of top lawmakers, and lobbyists flock to the event because it gives them a chance to hang out with the General Assembly's leadership.

This year's annual spring meeting was held last week and the Chamber named the chairmen of the House and Senate rules committees, Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, and Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, as Legislators of the Year for their work during the 2016 session.

Most years the honor wouldn't be particularly surprising, since the rules chairmen are extremely powerful, deciding what bills get a vote or die. Also, Meadows and Mullis received top marks on the chamber's scorecard for supporting the business lobby's agenda.

But Meadows also pushed legislation that would seem to be at odds with the Chamber's minimum wage stance, and that was unpopular with some of big-money business interests - in particular, the giant health insurance companies that typically have a good bit of pull at the Capitol.

Meadows' legislation would have guaranteed a minimum 5 percent commission for insurance agents who sell group health policies to small businesses. It also would set a 4 percent minimum commission for individual health benefit plans.

Meadows, who sells health insurance for a living, helped get the bill through the state House.

But it stalled in the Senate after the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about the fact that a bill to guarantee payments to agents was being pushed by a powerful insurance agent. After some Senate Insurance Committee members recused themselves from voting on the issue because they work in the insurance business, Meadows made it clear that Senate bills would have a hard time getting through his committee. The bill eventually passed the committee, but it stalled on the final day of the session.

Some senators raised questions about the mixed message the bill sent.

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, who serves on the Senate Insurance Committee and opposed the bill, noted that the same panel didn’t act on legislation calling for an increase in the minimum wage.

“And now we are prepared to vote on guaranteeing people an income with this legislation, when many of the members of the General Assembly will be positively affected by it,” said Jones, who founded an insurance business. “It would be kind of hard to go back and explain to folks why we can’t do something for hardworking Georgians but we are free to do things for General Assembly members.”

Lobbyists for insurance agents backed the bill, saying health insurers had cut or eliminated commissions for selling certain policies. Meadows said he wanted to make sure insurance agents could make a living.

“The attempt really was to get my insurance companies to the table,” Meadows said. “All this does is it ensures the agent gets compensated for the work he does.”

When it comes to low-wage earners, Chambers across the country have long opposed minimum wage increases or so-called "living wage laws."

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's website states, "Economic studies have shown that mandatory wage hikes price the lowest skilled workers out of jobs. If companies are forced to pay an arbitrarily higher wage, they will seek workers with skills to match."

When the Georgia Chamber was asked during the 2016 session about legislation calling for an increase in the minimum wage, it told WSB radio, "This type of government interference could jeopardize existing and future employment for Georgians."















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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.