Shorter session cuts Tenn. lawmakers' expenses

6:09 AM, Aug 22, 2011   |    comments
Tennessee Legislature/file/Tennessean
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Tennessee lawmakers collected 11 percent less in daily pay and expense reimbursements in 2011 than their counterparts did a year ago, according to records released by the state legislature.

State lawmakers received a combined $2.2 million in daily "per diem" payments and reimbursements in the first half of the year, an average of about $17,000 per session for each senator and representative. That was down from more than $2.5 million in 2010, an average of more than $19,000.

Much of the decrease can be attributed to a shorter legislative session this year. The state legislature adjourned on May 21, nearly three weeks earlier than in 2010.

"I think we approached this whole session with the mentality of getting our work done in a timely fashion," Speaker Beth Harwell said. "The General Assembly worked efficiently."

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.

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.

Three lawmakers - state Sens. Ferrell Haile and Kerry Roberts and state Rep. Antonio Parkinson - were excluded from The Tennessean's analysis because they served partial terms.

Per diem decreased

State lawmakers were paid $176 for each day they conducted legislative business, in addition to their base salary of $19,009. These per diem payments are meant to cover lawmakers' expenses while in Nashville, but legislators are allowed to keep any money that is left over.

In addition, state lawmakers receive reimbursement of 46 cents per mile for trips to and from Nashville. The state also covers registration and hotel costs for legislative conferences.

Some of the savings this year can be attributed to a $9 decrease in the amount of lawmakers' per diems. Each lawmaker would have received nearly $600 more had he or she been paid at last year's rate.

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.

Among Nashville-area lawmakers, state Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, collected the most in per diems, $16,192. The sum indicates Gilmore spent 92 days on legislative business.

At the conclusion of the session in May, Republicans were quick to say that the shorter legislative calendar had saved taxpayer money.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday that he hopes to beat this year's adjournment date in 2012. Next year's legislative session will start Jan. 10.

"If we hit the ground running the second week in January ... I think there's a chance we can get out three or four weeks earlier than this year," Ramsey said. "I think that's what the people want."

But House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh doubted this year's decline in per diems and expense reimbursements is a sign of a trend.

"The House polices itself and has for the last few years," he said. "I don't see that (lower per diems) as something we can necessarily look to, to reduce the cost of government."

Expenses per member *

All lawmakers $17,002
Representatives $17,243
Senators $16,261
Republicans $17,211
Democrats $16,552
House freshmen $16,770
Others in House $17,372

* Excludes lawmakers who served partial terms
Source: Office of Legislative Administration

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