Categories
Featured Tax and Budget

Governor Signs Measure Paring Down Per Diem

Tennessee lawmakers living within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol can expect to see their daily lodging allowances drop in a couple years.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed House Bill 80 into law Friday. It won’t impact sitting legislators — only those elected in 2014 forward. The provisions of the bill cover 25 Middle Tennessee House districts and nine Senate districts.

The final House vote was 77-16, with 20 members whose districts will be affected voting in favor of the legislation. Of the 15 Democrats who voted against the change, only four of them will be affected. The other six Democrats whose districts are impacted voted yes, while all of the 12 Republicans voted yes. Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, did not vote at all. (See Votes by Legislators Affected by Per Diem box below.)

plate

Gilmore was paid $13,215.85. Of the House districts that will be impacted, that was the highest in travel and per diem expenses in 2012.(See chart below for how much affected representatives received in cumulative travel and per diem expenses in 2012.)

plate

Of all the Senate districts to be affected, Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, had the highest travel and per diem expenses at almost $15,000. Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville, who has served for 42 years in the Senate, received $8,953.62, but the veteran Democrat returns all of his expense payments back to the state, according to Legislative Administration’s website. (See chart below for how much affected senators received in cumulative travel and per diem expenses in 2012.)

plate

According to the new law’s fiscal note, HB80 would save the state $253,616, based on figures from in 2012, when 33 legislators lived within 50 miles of the Capitol. The savings will come primarily from the ineligibility of lawmakers whose primary residence is within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol to automatically receive $107 a day for a hotel room. Instead, they will receive receive mileage reimbursement at 46 cents a mile.

In addition, legislators who live within Davidson County will be able to calculate their round-trip mileage to the Capitol and receive reimbursement for it, something they are currently unable to do.

Unlike current statute, which allows the 34 lawmakers affected to receive mileage for only one round-trip per week, the new statute would apply to each legislative day in Nashville or any day, except Friday, that the lawmaker participates in any other activity in Nashville, but would be limited to one round trip per day.

All legislators will continue to receive $66 per day for meals and incidentals.

There are two methods for logging their legislative time in order to receive their allowed expenses.  One is by attending committee meetings or legislative sessions in the House or Senate, which records this attendance automatically. The other method is filling out paperwork with the details of what they did that day. These documents must receive approval from the House or Senate speaker.

Lawmakers who live within the 50-mile radius will still be allowed to stay overnight and be paid the $107 for lodging – provided they receive prior approval from the speaker of their respective chamber.

For more on the history of this issue, which dates back more than five years, go to TNReport.com and search the archives using the phrase “per diem.”

To find out your legislators’ per diems, as well as mileage payments and travel spending, go to the Legislative Administration website. While some legislators may not claim the allowance for every day they work, it will give you a rough idea. The online data goes back to 2009.

If you’re not sure who your representative or senator is, type in your address at this “Find My Legislator” database, and you’ll find out.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

Categories
NewsTracker

Turner: Roll Per Diem into Legislative Salaries

A leading Democrat on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill says legislators should reexamine laws that offer him and his peers a daily allowance each day they are at the Capitol, but it’s not a high priority.

“I think there may be a political will to possibly roll some of that per diem into maybe an increased salary and clear out some of the different little ways you can receive compensation up here,” said Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic caucus chairman.

Last month, a TNReport analysis found the state had spent more than a half-million dollars on per diems for lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol and return to their homes after a day of legislative work. The stipends are meant to cover lodging, food and incidental expenses, and the payments are no different for lawmakers who live in Nashville neighborhoods and those living much farther away.

The part-time lawmakers collect a $19,000 salary and an $185 per diem. As of Oct. 1, the daily allowance drops down to $176 because it is tied to the federal travel reimbursement rate.

The TNReport analysis also included Turner’s per diem habits. Of the 30 lawmakers examined, Turner’s collections ranked in the lower third of the group, accepting $16,266 in the last year. Others living within a short distance of the Capitol collected more, like Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, whose $23,473 in payments topped the list.

“I think the per diem thing is something we need to look at,” said Turner, “but it’s down on my list.”

Categories
NewsTracker Tax and Budget

TNReport Spotlights Nashville-area Legislator’s Allowances; View All Lawmakers’ Per Diems Online

TNReport recently published a pair of stories focused on Nashville-area lawmakers who accept thousands annually in allowances meant to cover lodging, meals and other incidental expenses. The legislators live so close to the Capitol that they rarely stay in hotel rooms for legislative business, but for the most part they still accept the $185 per diems. (Sens. Douglas Henry and Diane Black and Rep. Mike Stewart return a portion or all of their payments to the state.)

The lawmakers grow accustomed to the extra cash, and many of those interviewed by TNReport seemed not to see the underlying issue — taking money for hotels when they lay down their heads at home — and referred to the allowances as bonus income for the hours they spend in committees crafting laws and trying to fix budget shortfalls.

TNReport readers from places farther away from Nashville can also check out their legislators’ per diems, as well as mileage payments and travel spending, at the Legislative Administration website. It’s not a perfect gauge for how many days your lawmaker has put in because some legislators say they don’t claim the allowance for every day they work. But it should give you a rough idea. The online data goes back to January 2009.

Not sure who represents you? Type in your address to this “Find My Legislator” database, and the online service will tell you.

Categories
Featured News Tax and Budget

$500K Spent on Lodging Allowances for Nashville-Area Lawmakers Last Year

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

Categories
Featured News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Local Senators’ Lodging, Incidental Allowances Reach $21K

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

Categories
Press Releases

Sen. Finney Wants Freeze on Lawmakers’ Per Diem

Press Release from Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, March 4, 2010:

Legislators shouldn’t see rates rise as families sacrifice

NASHVILLE – Sen. Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) is calling for a freeze on lawmakers’ per diem rate until 2014, saying that legislators shouldn’t receive an increase in per diems until Tennessee’s economy fully recovers.

“Tennessee families are struggling to make ends meet, and lawmakers have no business demanding an increase in taxpayer money for personal use,” Finney said.

Finney’s bill (SB3650) would freeze the current per diem rate until 2014, when Tennessee’s economy is expected to return finally to pre-recession levels, according to presentations to lawmakers by University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox.

Currently Tennessee lawmakers are eligible for $185 per day – one of the highest rates in the country – to cover travel and living expenses. The state faces a tough budget year that could include layoffs and cuts to TennCare.

Tennessee lawmaker per diems are increased automatically when the federal government’s per diem increases, meaning state legislators don’t have to vote on the matter. They can, however, put a freeze on the per diem.

Last October the per diem increased from $171. Under Finney’s bill, the freeze would go into effect Nov. 2010 and would expire in Nov. 2014.

“I hope that my colleagues will join me in supporting this freeze. Families across the state are setting priorities every day,” Finney said. “We should do the same.”

Finney plans to introduce his bill next week in the Senate.

Senator Lowe Finney represents Madison, Carroll and Gibson Counties. Contact him at sen.lowe.finney@capitol.tn.gov or (615) 741-1810 or 317 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0027.