Some legislators collect more expense money for out-of-session work than in-session

Tennessee state legislators collected a total of $2.4 million in “per diem” expense payments last year with 14 getting more money for days when the General Assembly was not meeting than for days it was in session, reports The Tennessean.

That wasn’t a record in total payments. In 2009, the expense payments totaled $3.1 million. But the legislative session ran until June 18 that year; it closed on May 10 in 2017.

The Tennessean calculates that the expense payment total in 2017 was $370,000, or 17 percent, more than in 2016 when adjournment came on April 22.

The bulk of per diem payments come during session, but legislators can also be compensated for out-of-session days that include legislative work, as the newspaper notes, “whether they spend 20 minutes or five hours working.”

The per diem rate is adjusted annually in October by state law to track a federal government formula for expense payments to federal employees. In 2009, the Tennessee rate was $171 per day. In 2017, it was $220 (up $16 or about 8 percent from 2016). This year, the rate was bumped up another $9 to $229 for the 2018 session.

The base salary for a state legislator – adjusted every two years based on increases in state employee pay in the preceding two years – is currently $22,667.

From The Tennessean:

The analysis of 2017 expenses found several lawmakers — eight in the House and six in the Senate — received more money for allowances and travel when the legislature was not in session.

Some of those who had more reimbursements for expenses out of session are in leadership or participated in legislative meetings outside of the annual session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Others, like Reps. John DeBerry and G.A. Hardaway, both Memphis Democrats, said they did office work throughout the year.

Hardaway, for example, spent 13 of the 23 weekdays in August in Nashville, at a cost to taxpayers of $4,300. He said he spent one day at a committee meeting, but Hardaway is not on any committee that held a hearing the day he was paid for work in Nashville. He received payment on the other 12 days for office work.

…House lawmakers received a total of $1.8 million for allowances and travel in 2017, a 21 percent increase from the year before.

Receiving $39,500, Hardaway was the top lawmaker in terms of reimbursements. He was one of four Memphis Democrats to receive more than $30,000. Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, had the second most with $34,200.

The 33 state Senators received $645,000 in 2017, a 9 percent jump compared to the year before.

Sen. Reggie Tate, D-Memphis, received $33,000, which was the most of any senator. He was followed by GOP Sens. Mark Norris, Mike Bell and Rusty Crowe, who received more than $31,500 each.

Norris is the Senate majority leader. Bell frequently returned to Nashville as part of his duties as chairman of the government operations committee, which frequently convenes throughout the year.

Note: Per diem payments have sometimes become an issue in legislative campaigns. In the special Republican primary election last week for Senate District 14, for example, businessman Shane Reeves (the winner) repeatedly attacked former Rep. Joe Carr over his per diem expenses and promised to donate the payments he receives, if elected, to charity. Carr responded by criticizing the high per diem collections of former state Sen. Jim Tracy and Rep. Pat Marsh (both R-Shelbyville). Tracy and Marsh both endorsed Reeves.

Insofar as total payments go, it may be worth noting that the legislature in 2013 changed state law to provide that lawmakers living within 50 miles of the state capitol do not get a full per diem. Thus, in the current session, those living more than 50 miles away get $229 per day; those within the 50-mile radius get just $59. All get 47 cents per mile for driving to and from their legislative work.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations did a study on legislative compensation in 2016, suggesting the system may be unfair to some legislators. The study is HERE.

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