Lawmakers Approve Higher Hotel Reimbursements for Themselves

June 6, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Hotel RoomS.C. lawmakers apparently don’t believe in “slumming it” while in Columbia during legislative session weeks.

Buried in the fiscal 2015 state budget passed Wednesday by the General Assembly is an amendment specifying that lawmakers be reimbursed for their hotel stays during session weeks at the “average daily rate for hotels in the Columbia Downtown area” as of this fiscal year, as defined by the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

If Gov. Nikki Haley doesn’t veto Proviso 91.4 (F), lawmakers would get reimbursed for their hotel stays – courtesy of S.C. taxpayers – at rates that are at least 37 percent higher than the current federally authorized reimbursement rate, a review by The Nerve found.

That’s on top of the $12,000 pay increase lawmakers authorized Wednesday for themselves through another budget proviso (91.29), which doubles their eligible monthly “in-district” payments to $2,000. That proposed increase would be automatic unless lawmakers choose to opt out of it.

Asked Thursday about the proposed increase in hotel reimbursements, Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, in a written response said he wasn’t aware of the budget proviso authorizing it, though he voted in favor of the final budget version.

“That being said,” Ballentine added, “serving our state is a privilege and honor, but also a job that takes significant time away from our primary employment and families.”

The General Assembly’s final budget version for fiscal 2015, which starts July 1, was crafted in secret instead of differences being resolved through the traditional public conference-committee process.

Neither the proposed hike in hotel reimbursements nor the increase in in-district payments can be found in any line item in the Legislature’s final budget version, Les Boles, director of the Office of State Budget, said Thursday when contacted by The Nerve.

“The provisos you referenced will be funded within the existing House and Senate’s appropriations,” Boles said in a written response, though he didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions about what cuts the chambers planned to make to cover the proposed increases, or whether the chambers’ multimillion-dollar reserves would be tapped instead.

The Nerve last month reported that the Senate ignored the balanced-budget requirement in the state constitution in authorizing the in-district payment increase without specifically funding it.

Neither House Clerk Charles Reid nor Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett immediately responded Thursday to written questions from The Nerve about how the proposed increases in in-district payments and hotel reimbursements would be funded. Haley spokesman Doug Mayer didn’t respond to questions about whether Haley planned to veto the provisos in question.

Taxpayers would be paying an additional $2 million annually if all 170 members accepted the in-district payment hike, which was pushed late in the session by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, The Nerve previously reported.

The current state budget proviso caps “subsistence” reimbursements for hotel and food costs at the rate authorized by the Internal Revenue Service for the Columbia area. The total daily “subsistence” payment to lawmakers currently is $140, up from $131 a year ago, according to information provided to The Nerveby the House Clerk and Senate Finance Committee offices.

Whether the proposed hike in hotel reimbursements would result in a total “subsistence” payment increase was unclear as of Thursday, though it would be likely assuming that the meal-reimbursement portion of the overall rate isn’t reduced.

Lawmakers have to be recorded as being present during legislative days to receive “subsistence” payments, though they don’t have to verify any actual lodging or food costs. Legislative days are defined under Proviso 91.4 as Tuesdays through Thursdays during the annual legislative session, which starts on the second Tuesday in January and typically ends in later June.

The federally authorized lodging reimbursement for government groups staying in the Columbia area is $89 per day, said Jason Outman, director of sales and marketing for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, when contacted Thursday by The Nerve.

The year-end average daily rate for Columbia’s 10 downtown hotels in 2013 was $122.20, Outman said, which is $33.20, or 37.3 percent, higher than the federally authorized reimbursement rate. The year-to-date average daily rate for this year is $128.82, he said. The average daily rate for this fiscal year, which started last July 1 and ends June 30, wasn’t immediately available Thursday.

In comparison, the most recent survey of 96 hotels and motels in Columbia, the rest of Richland County and Lexington County found that the average daily rate was $79.23, Outman said.

Asked about the $89 federally authorized reimbursement rate, Outman said, “Most of the downtown (hotel) properties will not accept that rate,” adding, “Usually government groups will take hotels not downtown or not come.”

Outman said the lowest daily downtown hotel rate he was aware of in the last two years was $99, though he noted that was “smack in the middle of July” when hotel occupancy in Columbia typically is lower compared to other times of the year.

The Nerve previously has reported about Midlands lawmakers accepting “subsistence” payments even though they live close enough to the State House to drive and eat at home during session weeks. “Subsistence” payments to lawmakers living within 50 miles of the Capitol are considered taxable income.

In his written response Thursday, Ballentine, who lives about 19 miles from the State House, said “there are several members in both bodies who choose to return home instead of staying in Columbia.” He didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions from The Nerve about whether he included himself in that group.

In a December 2012 story, Ballentine, who was first elected to the House in 2004,  told The Nerve he wasn’t planning to give up his “subsistence” payments.

Ballentine, an assistant vice president at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said then when he was first elected, “I decided to give my legislative salary back to the community in the form of student scholarships and other charitable donations to worthy causes (totaling about $35,000).”

“This has been rewarding for me and a blessing to those individuals and organizations,” Ballentine said at the time, though he added, “With my kids getting older, I can’t continue to afford to give back this income at the present time.”

The Nerve’s review then found that from January through September of 2012, 20 present or former House members received a total of $162,309 in “subsistence” payments, or an average of $8,115 per legislator. Nearly $975,000 was spent collectively during the nine-month period on those payments to all House members.

The total amount of “subsistence” payments to all lawmakers so far this year was not available Thursday, though The Nerve has requested figures from both the House and Senate.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.