Per diems a costly expense for General Assembly

Government Waste: Several lawmakers billed the state more than $40,000 for travel expenses

Top Georgia lawmakers billed the state for travel and expenses on more than one out of every four days while the General Assembly was out of session in 2008, 2009 and the first few months of 2010, according to data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Open Records Act.

Overall, lawmakers billed the state for nearly $3.6 million in so-called per diem payments from Jan. 1, 2008, through March 19, 2010, at the same time the state budget was being slashed by $3 billion, teachers and employees were furloughed and state troopers were taken off the roads.

Yet amid little oversight and minimal auditing, few questions are asked of a system that pays some lawmakers more than $20,000 per year, in addition to their $17,342 annual salary and up to $6,900 they may receive for expenses during the annual legislative session.

The biggest recipients of the payouts since January 2008 in the House were former Rep. Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain), who was the Transportation Committee chairman and is now commissioner of the Department of Transportation. He's followed by former Speaker Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), who was speaker pro tem for most of the time in question, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Harbin (R-Evans).

The top recipients in the Senate were Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill (R-Reidsville), Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth), Sen. Greg Goggans (R-Douglas) and Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour (R-Snellville).

Each made more than $40,000 in per diems in the time period.

The per diem payment system is a necessity in a state where the 180 members of the House and 56 members of the Senate are part-time legislators who meet for 40 days in an annual legislative session that can stretch for four months or more. But their obligations don't end when the gavel falls on sine die, marking the end of the session. And the demands are greater on top leadership and the heads of key committees.

In the so-called offseason, many serve on special committees charged with studying a particular policy area or in regular committees, like Transportation, which often meets throughout the year in search of the elusive fix to the state's traffic woes. Constituent needs, too, don't end when the session ends. The per diem system is designed to compensate lawmakers when they must take time off from work and travel, in some cases, hundreds of miles to Atlanta for off-session work. Most legislators, too, have taken furlough days to help cut costs.

The problem, said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent economic think tank, is not enough oversight.

"Someone should be watching the store," he said.

"Oversight is what is critical," McCutchen said. "There is a fine line between determining what is an abuse of the system and what is legitimate."

The system, however, is largely self-policed. Say it's July and a lawmaker needs to drive from his home district to the Capitol for a meeting. If the legislator is a rank-and-file member, he is supposed to first ask his committee chairman to approve the per diem payment. But every lawmaker can get per diem payments for up to seven days a year with no questions asked. Those days are known as a "committee of one days."

If the lawmaker's committee chair signs off on the expense, the lawmaker comes to Atlanta and does his business. He then signs a voucher saying he worked that particular day and lists how many miles he drove. The voucher gets submitted to the Legislative Fiscal Office, and the lawmaker gets paid. Committee chairmen said the requests are largely on the "honor" system, although it is a crime to claim unearned expenses.

But Rep. Mike Coan (R-Lawrenceville), chairman of the House Industrial Relations Committee, said he has questioned a colleague's request before, and the lawmaker withdrew the request. Coan would not name the legislator.

Lawmakers don't have to submit receipts to justify the $173 expense or keep a mileage log or even document the mileage driven. But once a month, the Fiscal Office produces a report detailing how much each lawmaker was paid in travel and expenses. In the House, the report goes to Rep. Chuck Sims (R-Ambrose), the chairman of the Committee on Information and Audits. In the Senate, it goes to Balfour, the Rules Committee chairman.

Sims said he checks the report each month, as required by state law. If anything looks unusual or raises a red flag, he'll alert the speaker. Balfour said he looks it over.

But state law says that the Senate Rules Committee must have an audits subcommittee "to examine and review, not less than once every two months, legislative expenditures, including all vouchers submitted by members of the Senate, as provided for in this Code section, for which the members have received payment. The subcommittee is authorized to issue reports of its examination and review."

No such subcommittee exists.

However, legislators know the atmosphere has changed. Per diem payments dropped 16 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Legislative leaders have tried over the past few years to rein in per diem spending. When Glenn Richardson (R-Paulding) was House speaker last year, he asked members of his chamber to limit their offseason work to save money and barred the creation of special study committees (except for one, to study pari-mutuel betting; its members agreed to meet without per diem). This year, when the General Assembly took a two-week break in late February, Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) ordered that House members not on Transportation or Appropriations committees should not seek per diem expenses during the break.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's president, and Ralston jointly sent a letter to lawmakers early this session asking for members' help in cutting costs. "Citizens expect us to do more with less and to make personal sacrifices during these trying times," they wrote in announcing more furlough days and cuts to House and Senate budgets.

Hill, a retired grocer, said the job demands more than it once did.

"It's been worse since we've been sliding," Hill said of the state budget situation. "The last 18 months to two years, it's been constant attention because of analyzing revenue numbers and what we're doing. We met last summer several times with the governor."

Hill said he might go months with only one day of per diem and then have "weeks where it's three or four days."

Shafer, who heads the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, said his secretary maintains records of his working days at the Capitol.

"I voluntarily reduced my legislative salary to help balance the state budget, but I have not cut back my legislative work schedule," Shafer said, adding that he reduced his state pay by one day per month last year "when local school systems began ordering teacher furloughs."

But Shafer also doubted the figures provided by the Fiscal Office. He said he did not claim as many days in the given time period.

Shafer's complaint raises another potential problem with the system. Legislators have until April 15 to submit vouchers for days worked in the previous year. Some lawmakers, like Shafer, often submit multiple vouchers at a time, sometimes months after the days were actually worked.

In the House, Sims said lawmakers are often in a difficult spot. They are expected to be at the Capitol for 40 days of session, but even that is misleading. This week, for example, the House and Senate are meeting Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But there are committee meetings on Thursday, even though Thursday doesn't count against the 40-day countdown. In the offseason, too, there are constituent concerns or occasions when local community groups make pilgrimages to the Capitol. They often expect their local lawmaker to show them around.

"You're not going to NOT do that," said Sims, who also is a funeral director and insurance agent. "Some people, they'll do it for nothing. They just won't get paid that day. I've got a job. I've got a business to run."

How per diem works

Each of the 236 members of the General Assembly is eligible to receive $173 per day in expenses, and more in travel costs, when doing official business even if the Legislature is not in session. From Jan. 1, 2008, through March 19, 2010, the state paid nearly $3.6 million to lawmakers in per diem costs. Lawmakers are supposed to get approval from committee chairmen to claim the per diem days when they are out of session, but the chairmen say it is largely an honor system. Lawmakers must sign a voucher swearing under threat of criminal sanctions that they earned the per diem and must list the miles driven. But they do not have to produce receipts, and there is no auditing of the information. While the House examines a monthly report, the Senate does not, despite state law that requires the creation of a Senate subcommittee to do just that.

Top recipients

Here are the 10 members of the House and Senate who were paid the most from Jan. 1, 2008, through March 19, 2010, for travel and expenses incurred when the Legislature was not in session.The list shows the total number of non-legislative days claimed and the total paid. Lawmakers may be paid $173 per day for expenses and reimbursed for miles driven in official business. The payments are in addition to their annual salary of about $17,000.

House

  • Former Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain): 202 days, $47,862.79
  • Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), the former speaker and former speaker pro tem: 209 days, $43,051.73
  • Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Harbin (R-Evans): 160 days, $40,563
  • Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island): 130 days, $37,368.98
  • Natural Resources and Environment Committee Chairwoman Lynn Smith (R-Newnan): 153 days, $34,374.18
  • Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin): 123 days, $33,088.04
  • Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette): 106 days, $32,781.82
  • Higher Education Committee Chairman Len Walker (R-Loganville): 144 days, $31,301.90
  • State Planning and Community Affairs Committee Chairman Tommy Smith (R-Nicholls): 131 days, $31,191.94
  • Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones (R-Milton): 131 days, $30,774.09

Senate

  • Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill (R-Reidsville): 173 days, $49,304.33
  • Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee Chairman David Shafer (R-Duluth): 207 days, $41,801.82
  • Sen. Greg Goggans (R-Douglas): 155 days, $40,810.79
  • Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour (R-Snellville): 168 days, $40,033.41
  • Higher Education Committee Chairman Seth Harp (R-Midland): 145 days, $39,914.96
  • Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon): 140 days, $39,091.17
  • Sen. Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg): 170 days, $35,304.81
  • Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga): 144 days, $34,985.50
  • Public Safety Committee Chairman Jack Murphy (R-Cumming): 139 days, $34,159.97
  • Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock): 142 days, $34,039.49
  • Source: Legislative Fiscal Office

How We Got the Story

Legislation was introduced in the House in March that would bar Georgians who serve on boards and commissions from receiving mileage and expense reimbursements. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta), called for sacrifices in times of state budget crisis, but it specifically exempted lawmakers from having to give up their per diem payments. That prompted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to determine how much lawmakers are paid for work outside of the legislative session. The information was obtained via the state's Open Records Act and through numerous interviews with state lawmakers and other officials.

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