Simple Steps Will Stop Per Diem Abuse

Commentary — By on March 17, 2008 at 10:03 pm

By Drew Johnson

One of the greatest features of Tennessee’s state government is its part-time legislature. Since lawmakers generally meet for no more than 90 days every two years, the state’s elected officials are true “citizen legislators.” Most legislators hold their office, not to boost their income, but to serve the public.

Unfortunately, some lawmakers exploit rules governing per diem payments to try to turn their part-time legislative service into a full-time paycheck at the expense of taxpayers.

Each day the General Assembly meets, legislators are eligible for $161 to cover the cost of lodging and meals. That per diem amount is beyond salary and mileage payments. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only three states, Alaska, California and Georgia, offer a higher per diem rate for legislators than Tennessee. Six states offer no per diem at all.

In recent years, lawmakers began receiving per diem for any day during which they engage in an activity related to their duties as a legislator—even when the state legislature is not in session. It is not uncommon for lawmakers looking to pad their pockets to demand per diem payments for working from their Capitol Hill office during the summer or to attending conferences.

In 2007, 15 state lawmakers collected more than $20,000 in per diems, more than doubling their $18,123 legislative salaries. Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, led the way, lining her pocket with $31,967 in taxpayer-funded per diem allowances—an astounding 209 days worth.

While most Middle Tennessee lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol refuse per diems, two Davidson County Representatives have no shame about padding their purses with taxpayer-funded per diems while eating dinner in their own homes and sleeping in their own beds. Even though she lives only seven miles from the Capitol, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, had the audacity to claim $22,216 in per diems last year. The home of Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, sits just five miles from her office in Legislative Plaza, yet in 2007, she squeezed $22,860 worth of per diems from taxpayers.

Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, both of whom live within 45 miles of the Capitol, also generously subsidized their salaries with per diems. Jackson pocketed $28,572 and Ketron snagged $18,931 in per diems in 2007.

The Tennessee Constitution provides a simple and reasonable solution to the problem of legislators who abuse per diem allowances. Article II, Section 23 of the State Constitution states that “no member shall be paid expenses, nor travel allowances for more than ninety Legislative days of a regular session.”

Currently, legislators do not receive a per diem for attending legislative proceedings when the session runs beyond the 90th day of the session. However, the Legislature ignores this rule when lawmakers submit per diem reimbursement requests for many other purposes.

To end per diem abuse, lawmakers should follow the spirit of the State Constitution and allow a maximum of 90 per diem requests each session. Since sessions rarely last a full 90 days, legislators could use remaining per diem allowances to offset the cost of attending relevant meeting or conferences.

In addition, lawmakers should receive per diems based on itemized hotel and meal receipts. Legislators should be reimbursed for the amount of their receipts or the current $161 per diem amount, whichever is less.

Taking these simple steps will stop, once and for all, stop state lawmakers from using per diems as a money-making scheme at taxpayers’ expense.

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