Lawmakers collect out-of-session money with little oversight

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Dec. 18, 2011. 

Georgia lawmakers billed the state more than $1.3 million for travel and expenses while the General Assembly was not in session this year, according to data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The charges, made between Jan. 1 and Dec. 8, came despite a push at the Gold Dome for leaner state government.

Over the past few years, more than 14,000 positions have been eliminated from state agencies. Divisions within the Department of Natural Resources have laid off dozens of employees. Budget cuts in areas such as college funding have meant tuition and fee hikes for thousands of students.

Yet lawmakers themselves have continued a long-standing practice that pays some more than $15,000 a year in expense money, on top of a $17,000 annual salary. And they do it with little outside oversight. No receipts or mileage logs are required to go along with these per diem payments, prompting a call for more openness by groups pressing for change.

"The key to solving all the problems is full transparency," said Julianne Thompson, state co-coordinator of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots. The group is part of a coalition pushing for tougher ethics laws, including a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts. A push for disclosure of per diem expenses will also be on the coalition's agenda, although Thompson said she does not question the payment system itself.

"They could have a legitimate reason," Thompson said, but "I need more information for what they were charging for."

The biggest recipients of the payouts in the House were Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta; Rep. Steven Davis, R-McDonough, who as Information and Audits Committee chairman is supposed to review House members' per diem reports monthly; and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

The top payouts in the Senate went to former Reapportionment Chairman Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, whom Gov. Nathan Deal named as deputy state treasurer in October; Rules Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville; and Transportation Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

Each made more than $15,000 in per diem for the time period. These payments were made for days during the year legislators said they worked even though the General Assembly was not meeting in regular or special session. Generally, legislators also receive per diem when they meet in session. The per diem noted in this story come on top of those regular payments.

The per diem payment system for time off-session has been considered a necessity to support 180 members of the House and 56 members of the Senate who are part-time legislators serving a full-time constituency. Top leadership and the heads of key committees, especially, face additional demands, often beyond the traditional 40-day legislative session that generally runs January through April.

Many lawmakers serve on special committees charged with studying a particular policy area, such as how Georgia pays for its public schools. Some regular committees, such as those involving transportation, often meet throughout the year.

Additionally, this year lawmakers went through the once-a-decade process of redrawing Georgia's legislative and congressional districts, which resulted in a special session in August as well as additional work for lawmakers. Seabaugh, for example, oversaw the process in the Senate. Abrams led the Democratic response in the House. For both of them and other legislators, it meant a lot of extra prep work before that session.

As such, the system is designed to compensate lawmakers when they must take time off from work and drive, in some cases, across the state to Atlanta for off-session work. The law allows them to be reimbursed for mileage or transportation costs, plus other permissible expenses such as lodging, meals and supplies. There are no geographic limits in the system, so a lawmaker who lives in Atlanta is as entitled to a per diem as one who lives in Savannah.

Abrams, who lives in Atlanta, said in a statement that after taking over her party's leadership in the House late last year, her increased responsibilities required a lot of time "coordinating policy initiatives, managing the once-a-decade redistricting process and traveling the state to meet with Georgia families and business leaders to understand their needs" in areas such as the proposed tax overhaul, immigration and transportation.

The current per diem rate is $173 per day, plus travel.

"I don't have any reason to suspect members are not doing their jobs; I have no evidence to indicate there is abuse," Ralston said. "You can easily obtain the number of days and amount of expenses members claim. I think that is transparency."

As for a possible push by groups to make lawmakers be more descriptive about what they claim, Ralston said, "oftentimes, constituents might expect some degree of discretion or privacy if they're meeting with a member about an issue they don't want to broadcast."

To temper excess, rank-and-file members are allowed only a limited number of per diem days they can claim without prior permission from committee chairmen. A senator may claim up to 15 such days, called "committee of one" days. A House member may claim up to seven.

Beyond that, committee chairmen are supposed to sign off on each day taken. Some ranking members, such as committee leaders, are allowed to take additional days. Others have no limits.

In the Senate, for example, the chamber's top senators may claim an unlimited number of days, while others are supposed to cap their days at 50. All are only required to submit "a brief statement" affirming the nature of their business for each day taken. Alleged violations, according to Senate policy, could be considered an ethics violation.

Once a month, the Legislative Fiscal Office produces a report stating how much it paid each lawmaker in travel and expenses. In the House, the report goes to Davis. In the Senate, it goes to Balfour.

Balfour did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Davis said in an email that he reviewed those reports. He said he has spent time on committee work, including reorganizing the Audits Committee, and also served on a special redistricting committee.

"I take my duties and responsibilities very seriously, and I am working hard to help find ways to make government more efficient and responsive for the citizens of Georgia," Davis said.

William Perry, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said it may be time to reconsider how the per diem program works, including possibly basing it on how far a lawmaker has to travel to get to Atlanta. Common Cause is also part of the coalition pushing for tougher ethics laws.

"I do think it's important for each member of the General Assembly that they make judicious use of the per diem and make sure it's benefiting the people of Georgia," Perry said. "There needs to be greater accountability of how the money is spent."

Top recipients 

Here are 10 members of the House and Senate who were paid the most from Jan. 1 through Dec. 8 for travel and expenses incurred when the Legislature was not in session. The list shows the total number of nonlegislative 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.


Minority Leader Stacey Abrams,  D-Atlanta: 136 days $25,506.29

Rep. Steven Davis, R-McDonough, Information and Audits Committee chairman: 82 days $17,277.75

Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge: 92 days $15,916

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman: 75 days $14,270.40

Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, Appropriations Committee chairman: 64 days $13,849.97


Former Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, Reapportionment Committee chairman: 96 days $21,543.77

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, Rules Committee chairman: 98 days $20,264.41

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, Transportation Committee chairman: 74 days $18,054.49

Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas, Insurance and Labor Committee chairman: 70 days $16,515.89

Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, Economic Development Committee chairman: 64 days $14,054.99