Legislators get less than $2 daily increase in base pay, $10 bump in per diem

State legislators are getting a $681 increase in their annual base salary for the 109th General Assembly, along with a $10-per-day hike in their daily expense allowance, according to Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration.

At the same time, some lawmakers — the 35 who live within 50 miles of the state Capitol — will see their expense allowance reduced under a law enacted last year that did not take effect until after this year’s elections.

In the 108th General Assembly, legislators received a base salary of $20,203 per year. That amount will increase to $20,884 for the 109th General Assembly under state law that raises lawmakers’ pay in line with a formula tied to increases in state employee compensation over the past two years, Ridley said.

State employees got no general pay raise this year, but a 2013 bump upward in their compensation triggered the $681 annual base salary increase for legislators.

Also during the 2014 session of the 108th General Assembly, all legislators received a “per diem” expense allowance of $188 for each day spent on legislative duties, a figure revised annually. That amount will increase to $198 per day during the 109th General Assembly, Ridley said.

The per-diem increase is tied by state law to a formula based on the federal government’s payments to its employees for travel expenses in Nashville. The federal formula, in turn, is tied to the average cost of a night’s stay in a Nashville motel and to the cost of a day’s food and incidental costs for a day in the state capital city — parking fees, for example.

There has been a long-running controversy over legislators who live near Nashville and who thus need not spend money on a motel getting the same per diem as those who live far away. A law enacted by the Legislature in 2013 — although not taking effect until after the November 2014 elections — declared legislators living within 50 miles of the state Capitol will not receive the portion of per diem allocated under the formula for a motel room.

For the session commencing Jan. 13, 2015, those lawmakers will not get the full $198 per day; instead only the $66 allocated for daily food and incidentals under the federal formula and not the $132 allocated as the average cost of a motel in Nashville for a night. Ridley said 35 legislators for the 109th General Assembly fall into the within-50-miles category.

The commuting legislators will be able to charge the state 47 cents per mile now for driving from their homes — the mileage rate is unchanged from the 108th General Assembly rate — to the Legislative Plaza each day. Under the old rules, they could bill the state only once per week for commuting mileage — not daily — but got the full per diem rate.

At the time of the bill’s passage, the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee staff calculated the net result of daily mileage versus ending automatic per diem for near-to-Nashville legislators would be about $250,000 in annual savings for taxpayers.

The 2013 bill revising per diem was sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, in the Senate and in the House by Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, who currently is challenging Beth Harwell as House speaker.

Womick at the time argued the payment of a motel allowance to legislators who did not have to stay in a motel was unfair to taxpayers and further contended at some length that the existing rules benefited the federal government.

Under Internal Revenue Service rules, legislators living within 50 miles of Nashville — as Womick does — must pay federal income taxes on their automatic per diem. That meant, at the time, that around $40 of each $188 that a legislator received in per diem — on average — wound up being paid as federal income tax, Womick argued in legislative debates. Thus, he argued, the old situation benefited the federal government at the expense of state government.

The bill was approved 28-2 in the Senate; 78-15 in the House.

Those opposing were mostly Democrats, including Rep. Johnny Shaw of Boliver, who said the bill was part of efforts “setting up a platform for only rich guys to serve in the Legislature.” People of modest means, Shaw said, are already sacrificing to spend time away from paying jobs and deserve full per diem — even if they live within 50 miles of Nashville, he said.