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Per Diem Cutback Sails Through First House Committee

Critic says aim is to make Legislature a wealthy-only zone

Despite an accusation it’s “setting up a platform for only rich folk to serve in the Legislature,” Rep. Rick Womick’s bill to discontinue per diems for local lawmakers sailed through the House State Government committee Tuesday.

The Rutherford County Republican wants to eliminate the $107 daily lodging allowances for legislators who reside within 50 miles of the Capitol in Nashville.

“This is the right thing to do,” Womick, a second-term Republican, said. “If we’re not using a hotel, then we shouldn’t be reimbursed for something that we’re not receiving.”

In place of the daily per diem, he wants these members to receive mileage at the rate of 46 cents a mile for each legislative day on the Hill or any day, except Friday, that the member participates in any other meeting or activity held in Nashville – limited to one round trip per day.

Legislators would still receive the $66 a day for meals and incidentals they currently receive under the measure, House Bill 80.

Rep. Johnny Shaw “totally” disagrees with the legislation. ”I think you’re going to find out after you’ve been here a while that you’re making one of the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made,” the West Tennessee Democrat informed Womick during discussion on the bill.

Shaw noted that after calculating all of the expenses legislators incur driving to and from events throughout their districts and being away from home which “means he can’t hold a full-time job to support his family.”

“This ain’t a good idea,” said Shaw, now in his twelfth year as a state lawmaker. “This is going to hurt a whole lot of good people who could serve in the legislature, do a good job, probably do a better job than people born with silver spoons in their mouths.”

Womick said he’s more concerned with the savings to taxpayers than any hardships the bill might cause mid-state “citizen legislators.”

“I look at this as the Tennessee citizens’ money we are wasting,” Womick said. “You knew what you were getting into when you signed up to run as a state representative.”

Womick added that out of the $107 lodging per diem, the IRS automatically takes between $37 and $40 out of it for taxes, Medicare and Social Security, leaving legislators between $60 and $65 for a hotel room. A significant chunk is being sent to Washington anyway, he said.

According to the fiscal note attached to the bill, Womick’s bill would net the state a savings of $253,616 based on figures from in 2012, when 33 legislators lived within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol.

The committee voted on a voice vote to move the bill to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, with Shaw asking that his vote be recorded as no.

The Senate companion bill, SB107, was rolled until March 12 at the request of the State and Local Government Committee’s chair, Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman. Yager said he wants the committee to consider it along Sen. Mae Beaver’s Senate Joint Resolution 65, which directs the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intragovernmental Relations to study the work load of members of the Tennessee general assembly and the compensation rates of state legislators in all 50 states.

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