Per diem up for most legislators, down for some

Most state legislators will see an increase in their daily payment for expenses this year, but those living within 50 miles of Nashville will actually see a decrease.

The per diem expense payment for each day of work at legislative duties is adjusted annually, tracking a federal government formula that determines how much a federal worker is paid as a travel allowance when staying in Nashville.

This year, the federal formula has the average day’s stay in a Nashville motel pegged at $145 and the average cost of buying meals for a day at $59. Legislators who live more than 50 miles from Nashville get both the motel and meal allowance, or $204 per day, according to Connie Ridley, who heads the Office of Legislative Administration.

That’s a $6 per day increase over the daily payment of $198 during the 2015 legislative session and out-of-session work days. The per diem in 2015, in turn, was $10 per day higher than for the 2014 session.

But under a law that took effect in 2014, legislators who live within 50 miles of the Tennessee Capitol — about 35 of the 132 total — get only the meal allowance, not the motel allowance. And that actually decreased for 2015, from $66 per day then to the $59 per day for the 2016 session. Thus, Nashville-area lawmakers will get $7 per day less this year than last.

Ridley said she could offer no explanation for the change in federal figures, published by the U.S. Department of General Service.

All lawmakers driving to the Legislative Plaza also receive 47 cents per mile driven, unchanged from last year.

Legislators’ base salary, paid in addition to the per diem allowance, remains at $20,884 per year. It is adjusted every two years, tracking the increase in state employee pay over the two-year period. The base pay was increased to that figure for the 109th General Assembly, which convened in January 2015, by $681 per year. The next increase will come with the start of the 110th General Assembly, which will convene in January 2017.

House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are paid three times the base salary of other legislators, or $62,652 per year.

Legislators also receive $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year, as a “home office expense allowance,” ostensibly to cover costs of keeping an office in their home districts, though the rules allow them to pocket the money or use it for any other purpose and the Internal Revenue Service treats the payments as general income.

Legislators have the option of enrolling in the state’s health insurance program and most do so — a matter that became somewhat controversial in last year’s session after lawmakers killed Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal to provide health care insurance through TennCare to an estimated 180,000 or more uninsured Tennesseans.

The state subsidy for health insurance to legislators varies widely, depending on the number of family members covered and the type of insurance coverage plan chosen by each individual. Figures released by state officials indicate the state subsidy for providing health insurance to state legislatures has averaged about $1 million per year since 2008. Many plans call for the state paying 80 percent of the insurance cost; the covered legislators paying 20 percent.