House Speaker Beth Harwell, who donates her own legislative expense payments to charity, has moved to curtail the expense money other state representatives collect for out-of-state traveling.
Harwell put the new policy in place with a memo sent to all members of the House about a week before adjournment of the 2011 legislative session. Most out-of-state travel by lawmakers traditionally occurs after the session ends and lawmakers have more free time.
Under both her predecessors as House speaker and under Harwell until the May 13 memo, representatives were allowed to take one out-of-state trip per year with taxpayers covering transportation — either reimbursement for driving or airplane fare — plus hotel costs and an automatic expense allowance, currently $176 per day and at $185 for most of last year.
But they were also allowed to make more trips and still bill the state for the daily expense allowance, called “per diem,” though not for transportation and hotel costs. Harwell’s new policy makes the one-trip-per-year rule apply to per diem payments, too.
She noted the lawmakers can still charge their travel expenses to their political campaign accounts, but not to taxpayers.
“Each member desiring to attend additional out-of-state events during the calendar year may use campaign account funds to cover expenses incurred,” she said in the memo. “Additional out-of-state travel (after one trip) within the same calendar year will not be eligible for per diem reimbursement.”
In 2010, a review of legislator expense records indicates, at least 16 representatives collected per diem payments for second and subsequent out-of-state trips.
Two House members, Rep. Lois DeBerry and Karen Camper, both Memphis Democrats, had already made two out-of-state trips and received per diem payments for in 2011 before Harwell put the new policy in place in May. Twelve others had already made one trip.
“The decision to change the travel reimbursement policy to one trip per year is a reflection of our efforts to hold down costs and reflect savings in the legislature’s budget,” said Kara Watkins, spokeswoman for Harwell, in an email. “Speaker Harwell feels very strongly that if families are cutting their own budget and making reductions, the legislature should follow suit.”
In the Senate, Speaker Ron Ramsey’s policy is to allow senators to make as many out-of-state trips as they wish, subject to his approval of each journey, with reimbursement of hotel and travel costs as well as the daily per diem. Six senators made two or more out-of-state trips last year, led by Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, with eight, records indicate.
DeBerry and the late Rep. Ulysses Jones, who died in November after winning reelection to a new term, both had eight out-of-state trips last year. DeBerry, senior member of the House and former speaker pro tempore, is chairman of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF) while Jones was vice president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. DeBerry has also held leadership positions in the NBCSL and the National Conference of State Legislators.
Travel to various meetings of those groups accounted for most of the out-of-state travel by DeBerry and Jones last year. In DeBerry’s case, the trips ranged from an National Organization of Black Elected Women conference in Anchorage, Alaska – also attended by Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville – to a SLLF gathering in Dublin, Ireland.
She did not bill for hotel or airline tickets to any of the events, but collected per diem for 28 days of travel, totaling $4,909. That included $1,110 for six days in Dublin at the $185 per day per diem rate.
Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, had six out-of-state trips last year and Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, had five.
Four House members – Reps. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville; Jeannie Richardson, D-Memphis; former Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden; and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin – collected per diem for four trips each last year.
Maddox was vice president of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) and in line to become president of that organization until losing his bid for re-election to the House in November.
Two representatives who did not seek reelection made out-of-state trips with all expenses paid in their final months.
Former House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, now executive assistant to the state comptroller, made a four-day trip to an SLLF meeting in Boston that ended Oct. 3 and former Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, who is now chief clerk of the state House, traveled to a American Legisltive Exchange Council meeting in San Diego..
The ALEC San Diego event was the most popular destination for Tennessee legislative travel last year with 16 attendees from the state – 12 representatives and four senators. Tate was the only Democrat to attend the session, known for developing model legislation with conservative, pro-business themes. Most counted billed for six days of per diem at the $185 rate in effect until Oct. 1, or $1,100 each. And most counted it as their one all-expense paid trip and those staying for the full conference had a motel bill of $1,175 plus varying airline fees.
An NBCSL event in Atlanta was the second most popular Tennessee legislator destination last year, drawing 13 members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. Most drove to the five-day event in early December, collecting a maximum of $880 in per diem at the $176 rate then in effect. The top hotel bill was $607 for those counting it as an all-expense-paid trip.
Four state representatives made three out-of-state trips last year. They were Reps. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville; Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis; Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta; former Rep. Eddie Yokley, D-Greeneville, who was defeated in his bid for re-election.
Another four had two trips. They were Reps. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains; Johnny Shaw, D-Jackson; Eric Watson, R-Cleveland; and House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
All legislators are paid per diem each day the General Assembly is in session for committees or House and Senate floor meetings, but they must apply for the payments when the Legislature is out-of-session, whether the activity occurs within the state or out of state.
Harwell does not bill for any per diem payments, but does accept the in-session per diem payments, then donates the money to charity, Watkins said.
“When we are in session, members are automatically granted their per diem without filling out any paperwork,” she said in an email. “When we are not in session, members must fill out per diem requests, and have them approved by our office.
“The Speaker takes her per diem during session and donates it to charity. She simply chooses not to fill out the paperwork to bill for per diem out of session,” Watkins said.
(Note: This is an unedited version of a story appearing in Monday’s News Sentinel.)