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.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If Democrats have their way, the Tennessee General Assembly would meet only every second year, lawmakers’ daily expenses would be capped and bill sponsors would have to divulge if their legislation originated with national groups.
Democratic leaders insist their proposals are designed to promote good government. But Republicans charge the measures are election-year games.
“I’d be glad to look at any suggestions they have, but they’re playing politics,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said in a recent interview. “When they had the power to do it, they didn’t do anything about that.”
But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville argued that most of the lawmakers sponsoring the current measures didn’t hold leadership positions before Republicans won their majority in the House in 2008.
“How long do you hold a good idea down just because a party took things a particular way several years ago?” Turner said.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lawmakers’ out-of-session expenses increased 8 percent in the third quarter despite the elimination of legislative oversight committees, an Associated Press review has found.
The state paid out about $270,000 in daily expenses and mileage reimbursements in the quarter ending Sept. 30, compared with $251,000 in the same year-ago period. The figures do not include out-of-state trips, but do include about $30,000 spent to send lawmakers to a Southern Legislative Conference meeting in Memphis in July.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s spokesman Adam Kleinheider called the quarter’s increase a “one time blip” because of the Memphis event.
“Our members had a great opportunity to serve as ambassadors for our state and they took it,” he said. “Unified Republican government is committed to cutting government wherever and whenever it can.”
Chas Sisk has crunched legislative per diem numbers in various ways, starting with the observation that about $300,000 less of the automatic expense payments were made during the first six months of 2011 than in the same period last year’s session, a total of about $2.2 million last year versus $2.5 million this year.
The difference, of course, is that legislators had about three weeks less of daily meeting this year’s regular session than last and the per diem rate was down from $185 per day to $176 per day.
The 32 state senators who served the entire 2011 term collected an average of $13,405 in daily payments, plus $2,856 in expenses, an analysis by The Tennessean found. The 98 state representatives who served the whole term collected an average of $14,135 in per diems, plus $3,108 in expenses. (The combined overall average: about $17,000.)
Republicans in the state House of Representatives received about $500 more in per diems and expense reimbursements than their Democratic counterparts. Senate Republicans collected nearly $900 more than Democrats.
Freshmen members of the House of Representatives collected an average of $16,770 in per diems and expense reimbursements, about $600 less than senior members of that chamber.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, led all state lawmakers in per diem payments, collecting $19,536, indicating he spent 111 days on legislative business. State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, collected the least, $10,384, indicating he spent 59 days on legislative business.
Sens. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, and Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, tied for the largest per diems in the Senate, $16,368. Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle collected $11,264 in per diems, the least among members of that chamber.
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.
A bill that would freeze state legislators’ expense allowances and mileage reimbursement rates has passed a Senate committee while being left dead in a House subcommittee.
Legislators receive $176 per day as a “per diem” expense allowance, paid automatically for each day they are engaged in legislative functions, and receive 46 cents per mile reimbursement for use of their personal vehicles while commuting to Nashville or otherwise engaged in legislative duties.
Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, proposes in SB1372 to prohibit future increases in the rates, which are typically adjusted Oct. 1 to track a federal formula. Usually, the rates go up — though last year, for the first time, the per diem rate actually declined from $185 to $176.
Finney’s bill, as amended, would reduce the rates if they decline in the future, but block any increases. That sparked some debate among members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
“Can you amend it to lower gasoline prices?” quipped Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, observed that legislators would “be stuck” at low mileage rates even if gas prices rise to $10 per gallon. He suggested that Finney amend the bill to put a freeze on city and county government officials, too.
Finney said he would “encourage” local government officials to freeze their rates but not mandate them, leaving legislators to “set an example” and save taxpayer money.
“At least we are receiving some type of reimbursement,” which is more than most average citizens commuting to and from their jobs, Finney said.
The bill passed the Senate committee 8-0 with Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Kingsport, abstaining.
Over in the House, meanwhile, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley simply abandoned attempts to pass the measure this year, taking it “off notice” at the last meeting this year of the House State and Local Government Subcommittee.