Tennessee taxpayers spent more than a half-million dollars last year on lodging and other incidental expenses for legislators who live less than an hour away from the state Capitol.
For the nine state senators and 21 representatives who live near the Capitol, the state spent $532,490 in per diems, even though those lawmakers typically spend the night at home after a day of legislative work, a TNReport analysis found. TNReport looked at the $185 per diem payments for lawmakers who live within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol, a benchmark also used by the IRS for tax purposes.
Many say they never or rarely stay in a hotel room when downtown for legislative business. But instead of directly defending their practice of accepting the money, they leaned on a simple fact: The law entitles them to it.
“I don’t set the policy. I’m merely following policy,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, a Clarksville Democrat who collected $18,517 in per diem in the last year. “I keep my trips to a minimum and, frankly, only claim half the time that I’m out there.”
The Nashville-area House members collected between $24,000 and $15,700 each from July of last year through June in the allowances, which are meant to compensate for lodging, meal and incidental expenses.
Rep. Sherry Jones lives about a 15-minute drive from the statehouse, but she’s collected $23,473 in legislative per diem in that time period, more than any other legislator.
“State law says that when I go to work, I get paid. So, I do what the state laws says,” the Nashville Democrat said in a telephone interview Wednesday. She added that she tends to several committees addressing children and youth issues which call her to the Capitol often.
“I go in a lot that I don’t even charge per diem for,” she said. “I might be on the phone with people all day… and I don’t charge that.”
Lawmakers have two methods for logging in legislative time in order to receive the allowances. One way is by showing up to committee meetings or legislative session in the House or Senate, which records their attendance automatically. The other way requires members to fill out paperwork detailing what legislative work they did on a given day. The documents require approval from the House or the lieutenant governor in the Senate.
Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, collected $18,943 during the same period, more than any other nearby Republican representative. She attributes the high allowance to her membership on several active committees, including a panel studying infant mortality issues, and said she “rarely” requests per diem outside those meetings.
But critics said the lawmakers are likening their role in the legislature to a full-time job.
“The Tennessee General Assembly is a part-time legislature, and it needs to stay that way,” said Justin Owen, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a group advocating limited government that is critical of wasteful spending. “It’s not a full-time job, and if they want to treat it like a full-time job and they’re trying to make it the equivalent of a full-time job, they have to find another one.”
The top five House lawmakers who pocketed the most per diem dollars are Democrats, and only three of the top 10 are Republicans. The highest-paid Democrats collected between $19,300 and $23,500 compared to $18,500 to $19,000 taken by Republicans.
The 21 House members on average collected $18,028 in the 12-month period. The nine senators accepted $17,098 on average, although Republican Sen. Bill Ketron took home $21,393, more than any other senator.
The payments have become a campaign issue for Ketron, who has served in the legislature eight years and is facing Columbia councilwoman Debbie Matthews in the November election.
“This is wasteful, and it’s not leadership,” she said. “I don’t care if they’re a Democrat. I don’t care if they’re a Republican.”
If elected, Matthews said she’d push for a tiered system that differentiates how much per diem lawmakers receive based on their home’s distance from the Capitol. She said she’d also be interested in a receipt system.
But lawmakers say they don’t know if there is a better way to compensate members for their expenses.
“If you do it by receipts, then I think people are going to scream,” said Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, who collected $18,472. “If you do it per day, people are gong to scream. I can’t tell you the best system.”
Per Diem Collected by State Representatives Living within 50 Miles of the Statehouse, July 2009-June 2010
Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, $23,473
Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, $21,833
Stratton Bone, D-Lebanon, $20,353
Gary Odom, D-Nashville, $19,655
Gary Moore, D-Joelton, $19,372
Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, $18,943
Glen Casada, R-Franklin, $18,573
Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, $18,517
Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, $18,472
Kent Coleman, D-Murfreesboro, $17,505
Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier, $17,278
Donna (Rowland) Barrett, R-Murfreesboro, $17,079
Mary Pruitt, D-Nashville, $17,051
Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, $16,594
Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, $16,594
Janis Sontany, D-Nashville, $16,552
Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, $16,437
Ben West, D-Hermitage, $16,395
Michael Turner, D-Nashville, $16,266
Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, $15,882 (Returned all 2010 per diem pay except January)
David Shepard, D-Dickson, $15,784