Tuesday, October 26, 2010

TOP STORY > >What lawmakers cost

By stephen steed
Special to The Leader

The legislative per-diem fracas that has cropped up this election season in Arkansas once attracted the attention of The New York Times – in February 1897 – under a one-column headline: “A Bit of Arkansas Fun.”

Then, a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives attempted to lower the rate from $6 a day to $5. His fellow lawmakers met the effort with derision – and wit, when another member offered a substitute bill to lower the stipend even more: “to 75 cents per diem, board and washing.”

The Times’ scribe wisecracked: “The substitute was put on its passage in the instanter and passed by almost unanimous vote amid tumultuous applause. If the Senate passes the bill and the governor signs it, Arkansas will get her laws made at something like old-time prices.”

Those old-time prices are forgotten in the “instanter” today.

Rep. Mark Martin of Prairie Grove is the Republican nominee for secretary of state. According to state records, he collected $56,920 in per diem, mileage and office expenses in 2009, the fourth-highest amount among the 100 state representatives and 35 senators.

His Democratic challenger, Pat O’Brien of Jacksonville, the current circuit/county clerk of Pulaski County, has questioned the reimbursements as being excessive and whether Martin has violated state law by using his taxpayer-funded district office as a campaign headquarters.

Martin defends his reimbursement record as being reflective of an active and high-ranking lawmaker watching out for the needs of his constituents.

He does that, he says, by spending a lot of time in Little Rock. He is the second-ranking Republican in the House and a member of the ever-active House Education Committee, the Joint Budget Committee and the Legislative Council.

As for the latter charge, Martin’s campaign, at various times and on various forms, has listed his home address as being that of his business address, his legislative office’s address and his campaign address.

His campaign manager recently told The Leader that the campaign has no physical address. His campaign Web site lists only a post office box.

Most Arkansas lawmakers today receive a per diem of $149 for attending a meeting, an amount deemed sufficient for meals and lodging.

Those who live within 50 miles of the Capitol don’t receive per diem or mileage.

All lawmakers receive a stipend for office expenses, whether that office is at home, at his or her place of business, or someplace else. They can choose $5,820 a year, $6,540 a year, or $14,400 a year, depending on their forecast for expenses.

As for salary, most senators and representatives make $15,869 this year; the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tempore earn slightly more.

Here’s what area lawmakers collected in 2009 above their yearly salaries, in reimbursement for expenses incurred, primarily from their offices, according to records from the House and Senate:

Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy: $39,151

Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle: $28,200

Sen. Mary Anne Salmon, D-North Little Rock: $29,187

Sen. Tracy Steele, D-North Little Rock: $31,475

Rep. Richard Carroll, D-North Little Rock: $28,024

Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot: $26,400

Rep. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe: $26,700

Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock: $24,700

Rep. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle: $27,982

Rep. Barry Hyde, D-North Little Rock: $34,992

Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sher-wood: $27,910

Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jackson-ville: $27,000

Because they’re ineligible for per diem for attending meetings in Little Rock, none of those 13 lawmakers come close to cracking the top 20 in legislative reimbursements.

They can attend every meeting of every day of every week – or none at all – and still receive the basic reimbursement for office expenses. They also can be reimbursed for expenses of attending an occasional conference and receive an additional $10,200 for office allowances because they can’t receive per diem and mileage.

Per diem has cropped up as an issue occasionally in other states.

This past winter, in Wash-ington, some 50 lawmakers declared they wouldn’t accept per diem of $90 during a special session devoted to adopting a budget.

According to The Olympian, the lawmakers’ decision stemmed from discontent that a special session was needed to adopt a state budget that should have been adopted weeks earlier in regular session. To cynics, the action ringed hollow: Washington lawmakers are paid $42,106 a year.

In the six states bordering Arkansas, per diem in Missouri is $103; in Mississippi $116; in Oklahoma $150; in Louisiana $159; in Texas $168; and Tennessee $185, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arkansas’ yearly legislative salaries of $15,869 compare only to Louisiana’s $16,800. On the low end, Texas pays $7,200 and Mississippi $10,000. On the high end, Missouri pays $35,915 and Oklahoma $38,400. In the middle is Tennessee, at $19,009 a year.

The term-limits amendment approved by voters in 1992 has had wide-ranging effects. In the House, where every member is up for election every two years, freshmen make up about a third of the 100-member body any given regular session.

The Senate, whose 35 members have staggered four-year terms, retains slightly more experience from session to session.

Because of term limits, incoming freshmen are encouraged by House and Senate leaders to attend as many meetings as possible, even meetings for committees of which they’re not members. They’re on a fast-learning curve, they are told.

Chances to attend meetings are plentiful: the General Assembly’s Web site lists 210 committees, subcommittees, commissions and task forces. In the 2009 regular session alone, the General Assembly created 14 task forces assigned to study topics ranging from autism to water quality. Annual budget sessions, approved by voters in 2008, add to the opportunity.

A legislator who never attends meetings or files few bills is often characterized by the media (and sometimes by fellow lawmakers) as “furniture.”

A lawmaker who appears to have no life outside the marble halls of the Capitol is a “fixture.” When it comes to taking per diem, maybe the most comfortable position is somewhere in between.