Rep. Joe Carr is eligible for a little-known tax break for bending the imaginary line that dictates to the IRS that he lives far enough away from the Capitol to consider him a long-distance commuter.
The Republican from Lascassas lives 41 miles away from the Capitol building, according to Google Maps. But the route he has registered with the state says it takes 51.8 miles to get to the statehouse — just 1.8 miles over the benchmark for taxing the allowances he collects for his legislative work.
If he had registered a more direct route under the 50-mile threshold, his $185-a-day payments would be subject to income tax.
“I had no idea there was a tax loophole,” said Carr. “I found out much later that there was a benefit to living out further than 50 miles.”
Asked whether he pays federal income taxes on his per diem, he said, “I don’t believe I do.”
Carr’s per diem records first came under fire shortly after he took office in 2009 when Democrats hammered the freshman legislator for raking in the second highest per diem over the first three months of the year.
Since then, his per diem collections have dropped to one of the lowest among local Nashville-area legislators, according to a TNReport analysis, although his Nov. 2 election opponent, David LaRoche, continues to harp on Carr’s past records.
Carr says he’s “getting tired” of all the talk about his daily legislative allowance and feels “like a piñata with some of this stuff.” His route, he contends, may be more miles, but it gets him to the Capitol faster.
And it was approved by the state, Carr points out. In January 2009, when the office of Legislative Administration asked Carr which way he would drive to the Capitol, he told them the shortest routes were plagued with construction, school zones and heavy traffic. Those routes included Murfreesboro Pike through Smyrna and I-24 by cutting through Murfreesboro.
Instead, he said he’d take Lascassas Pike to State Route 840 before hitting I-24 up to Nashville. “It may not be the shortest, but it is the quickest,” Carr said.
The state OK’d the alternate route, even though it added almost 11 miles to his drive. “It’s not how you look at the map. It’s how he drives to get here,” said Connie Ridley, the Legislative Administration director who approved his path.
Carr said even if all the road construction work were clear, he’d still prefer his current route because it avoids several school zones that slow him down first thing in the morning.
But his political opponent says adding on the extra miles is irresponsible.
“That’s exactly the kind of loophole — the gaming of the system, taking money when he doesn’t deserve it — that just really hits the point home,” said LaRoche, a Murfreesboro Democrat.
LaRoche, a lawyer focusing on estate management and start-up businesses, says the per diem system should to be updated and reformed to prevent any potential abuses.
A TNReport analysis found that legislators who live within 50 miles of the Capitol collected as much as $23,500 each per year in the daily allowance meant to cover their hotel, food and incidental expenses, although they almost always spent the night at home.
Carr collected $16,140 in the year ending in June, ranking him in the bottom five out of 31 local legislators. The top five per diem collectors living within 50 miles of the Capitol include:
- Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, $23,473
- Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, $21,833
- Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, $21,393
- Rep. Stratton Bone, D-Lebanon, $20,353
- Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, $19,655
Carr’s legislative district is largely considered a political toss-up heading into the general election as Democrats push to unseat the first-term incumbent, although the status was recently upgraded to “leaning Republican” by the Tennessee Journal.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 11:54 pm Oct. 6 (it originally posted at 7:11 pm) to include Rep. Carr’s statement that he was unaware of the income tax benefit of a route more than 50 miles from the Capitol.