State senators who live within an hour’s drive of the Capitol collected between $14,000 and $21,000 last fiscal year in daily stipends meant to help cover hotel stays, a TNReport analysis has found.
The legislative per diem is meant to cover the part-time lawmakers’ meals, incidentals and lodging, but some legislators living close to the Capitol say they consider it an addition to their income. They’re guaranteed the $185 check every day they step foot on Legislative Plaza or tend to state business elsewhere.
TNReport examined the per diem records for the nine state senators who live within 50 miles of the Capitol, a benchmark also used by the federal government, which taxes such income for nearby lawmakers but not for those outside that radius. The payments do not include mileage costs, which are reimbursed separately.
The findings come as the state faces at least $45 million in budget cuts next year. State agencies are being asked to slash as much as 3 percent off their budgets, not including $189 million in stimulus or other federal funding that will run out next year.
Legislators are given the allowance any time they attend “legislative sessions and legislative committee meetings, and such conferences, symposiums, workshops, assemblages, gatherings and other official meetings and endeavors concerning state business and duties of a legislator,” according to state law. There is no distinction based on where lawmakers live, and no difference between legislators who drive hours from the mountains of East Tennessee and those who cruise a few miles down Charlotte Pike to attend to state business.
State Sen. Bill Ketron, who lives in Murfreesboro, collected $4,295 more in per diem than the average for the nine legislators. The high-ranking Republican is taking heat from his general election opponent this year for taking his full legislative per diem despite residing about 33 miles south of the statehouse.
In the last year, he’s accepted $21,393 in legislative allowances, more than any other local state senator.
Ketron says he always drives home after a day of legislative work and never stays at a hotel.
“It’s just an addition to the regular salary that we as legislators get,” said Ketron. “The system was invented before I got here. It’s in the code, and it’s what I accept.”
Even though it’s legal to take the payments, Ketron’s opponent says she doesn’t believe it is taxpayer money well spent.
“I believe it’s a waste of money,” said Columbia Councilwoman Debbie Matthews. “It’s understandable if you live in Jackson, Tennessee, if you lived in Memphis. But to live this close to spend it on lodging, I just don’t understand that.”
She says many people from the Senate’s 13th District work in Nashville, too, and are required to cover their own costs to get themselves to and from work without the extra perk of a daily per diem.
But state Sen. Tim Barnes says conducting state business is taxing his own pocket.
“I’m wearing my car out,” said Barnes, D-Adams, whose home is 38 miles away from the Capitol.
Since he lives close, he says he never stays in a hotel. But his per diem payments, which totaled $15,641 in the last year, help make up what he loses when he takes time off from his small law firm to do legislative business, he said.
“I don’t want to go to Nashville unless I have to because I lose money. I lose considerably more than the per diem,” Barnes said.
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, earned $17,592, but gave all of it back to the state, records show.
“I live right within a commuting distance to the Capitol,” he said, declining to comment on other nearby lawmakers who choose to keep it.
“I have no opinion,” he said. “That’s everybody’s individual business.”
Tennessee law ties the per diem rate to the federal government’s daily allowance, which changes every Oct. 1. The new rate will be $176, according to the Office of Legislative Administration.
It seems unlikely the General Assembly would take up the issue of further reducing the per diem.
“I don’t think anybody’s willing to give that up,” Ketron said.
Per Diem Collected by State Senators Living within 50 Miles of the Statehouse, July 2009-June 2010
Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, $21,393
Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, $19,302
Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, $17,791
Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, $17,592 (returned total to the state)
Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, $16,950
Diane Black, R-Gallatin, $16,182 (returned portion)
Tim Barnes, D-Adams, $15,641
Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, $14,971
Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, $14,060