As a parting gift before leaving the state Legislature, five outgoing lawmakers spent more than $13,000 of taxpayer money to go on a four-day junket to Chicago, according to state records.
Taxpayers are covering the costs for everything from airfare and mileage to staying in $227-a-night hotels and taking $40 taxi cab rides during the trip. The registration fees were as high as $615 per person for the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in August. Some of the lawmakers, who had been defeated at the ballot box or announced their retirement, claimed five and six days’ per diem at $173 per day.
For lawmakers who knew at the time they would leave office after the November election, those bills amount to a taxpayer-funded “retirement party,” one critic said.
“People who serve in the Legislature for long periods of time tend to get a sense of entitlement about what the taxpayers owe them,” said Ben Cunningham, spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt, a taxpayer advocacy group.
What’s worse, he said, is that the speakers of both chambers signed off on the $13,388 worth of expense reports.
“To have the approval of leadership makes it doubly bad. They should have been leaders and said the taxpayers don’t need to be paying for this,” said Cunningham.
The outgoing lawmakers are House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries on Aug. 2, four days before the conference, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
“Technically, they still serve a constituency up to that point,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner told TNReport when asked about the lame duck lawmakers getting reimbursed for the Chicago getaway.
“Now, one could argue, is that the best way to spend state dollars? But technically they are still elected up to that time. There are a lot coming back who chose not to go on that trip. That says a lot, too,” he said, adding he also attended the trip entirely on his own dime.
TNReport revealed that outgoing lawmakers were planning to attend the conference shortly after it kicked off.
Since then, House Majority Leader General McCormick has called for his chamber to change the rules on who can get reimbursed for legislative trips if they already have one foot out the door.
“They’re on the way out. They’re not going to have much time to use their experience to benefit the taxpayers and their constituents,” he said in August. “But the ones that are there now, they did it under the old rules.”
Attempts to reach the five lawmakers for comment were unsuccessful Friday.
In August, Richardson told TNReport she was attending the conference despite her re-election defeat because she sits on an NCSL standing committee.
“These are working committees where we share what we’ve done and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states,” she said. “So, because I represent Tennessee on the Health Committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”
That committee has about 300 members. Montgomery served on the association’s Education Committee, Faulk, on Labor and Economic Development. Both panels are similarly large and also met during the conference.
All told, more than 50 Tennessee legislators or staffers attended the gathering on the taxpayer dime. Twenty-three lawmakers asked to get reimbursed for some if not all of their trip expenses, as did 33 members of legislative staff. The total cost amounts to more than $109,000, based on expense reports submitted by the 56 to the office of Legislative Administration. The figure represents the overwhelming majority of the expected costs, though a few additional expense requests could trickle in, said Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration.
On average, taxpayers coughed up $1,945 to send each person to the conference.
Here is a list of outgoing lawmakers and how much taxpayers spent sending them to the NCSL annual summit:
Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, $2,404.43
Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, $2,757.79
Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, $2,739.61
Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, $2,759.34
Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, $2,726.74