Midlands Senators Receive Hotel, Meal Payments Totaling Tens of Thousands

December 31, 2012

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

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Per diem for lawmakers who live within walking distance of the State House?

Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler’s home in West Columbia is 1.89 miles from the State House. Republican Sen. John Courson’s Columbia home is 2.79 miles from the Capitol.

Both longtime lawmakers, however, continue to receive thousands of dollars each year in “subsistence” payments meant to cover hotel and food costs incurred during official legislative business.

Setzler and Courson aren’t the only Midlands senators taking the $131 daily subsistence payments. A review by The Nerve of Senate expense records obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act found that 11 current or former senators, including Setzler and Courson, collectively received $97,726 in subsistence payments from January through November.

Individual payments ranged from $8,384 to $9,301 for the period, which works out to 64 to 71 legislative days. Those amounts were equal to or greater than the payments received by 26 other current or former senators who live more than 50 miles from the State House.

Subsistence payments to lawmakers living within 50 miles of the Capitol are considered taxable income; the Senate expense records provided to The Nerve distinguish between “reportable” and “non-reportable” subsistence.

After more than two years of reporting by The Nerve on the subject, two new Midlands lawmakers – Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who defeated Republican Sen. Jake Knotts  in the Nov. 6 general election; and Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, who replaced Republican Rep. Jim Harrison (Harrison retired earlier this year as a lawmaker but recently was hired as director of the state Legislative Council, which drafts bills) – told The Nerve earlier this month that they would refuse to accept any subsistence payments.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Courson, who was elected the Senate president pro tempore in March, said he wasn’t planning to follow Shealy’s and Finlay’s example.

“If a couple members want to do it one way, I don’t have any problem with that,” he said.

Courson, who also serves as the Senate Education Committee chairman, said subsistence payments were “part of the legislative pay package” offered to him when he was first joined the Senate in 1985. At the time, legislators from Richland County were offered the payments to bring their compensation in line with the pay of Richland County Council members, he said.

Courson said he has never accepted standard mileage reimbursements or per-diem payments for official meetings when the 46-member Senate was not in regular session. For this year through November, Courson’s taxpayer-funded expense payments totaled $20,689, which doesn’t include his $32,348 annual legislative pension, records show.

Following is a list of the 11 current or former senators living within 50 miles of the State House this year, how far their homes are located from the Capitol (according to a popular online map program), and the total subsistence amounts they received through November as listed in Senate records:

  • Former Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington – 8.83 miles, $9,301;
  • Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg –  43.02 miles, $9,301;
  • Sen.  John Scott, D-Richland – 7.59 miles, $9,170;
  • Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington –  1.89 miles, $9,170;
  • Sen. John Courson, R-Richland – 2.79 miles, $9,039;
  • Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland – 12.86 miles, $9,039;
  • Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland – 7.01 miles, $8,777;
  • Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry – 33.4 miles, $8,515;
  • Former Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter – 39.14 miles, $8,515;
  • Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw – 36.54 miles, $8,515; and
  • Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield – 28.96 miles, $8,384

The Nerve last week attempted to contact all current senators living within 15 miles of the State House – Courson, Jackson, Lourie, Scott and Setzler. Only Courson responded before publication of this story.

The Nerve reported earlier this month that 20 present or former S.C. House members who live in Richland or Lexington counties received a total of $162,309, or an average of $8,115 per lawmaker, in subsistence payments from January through September, according to House expense records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Nerve first reported in October 2010 that Midlands lawmakers were receiving subsistence payments. The $131 daily subsistence amount was established under Internal Revenue Service guidelines and has been fixed, through state budget provisos, in recent years at the 2008 level set by the IRS.

The payments are available to all lawmakers while they are on official legislative business, whether or not the General Assembly is in session, though it typically covers Tuesdays through Thursdays during regular session weeks. Under the annually renewed budget provisos, 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.

Subsistence payments are not the only taxpayer-funded benefit that lawmakers receive. Among other things, they receive a base $10,400 salary –unless, like Courson, they already get a legislative pension, which, by law, would prevent them from receiving their base salary. The Nerve reported in April that as of late last year, 18 senators, including Courson, and nine House members were receiving legislative pensions while in office.

Lawmakers also are eligible to receive “in-district” payments of up to $12,000 annually, which is considered taxable income; and mileage reimbursements. Senators have separate expense categories for per-diem payments to attend legislative meetings during non-session days, and additional “interim” annual payments of $650 for committee chairmen.

All total, more than $1.32 million was spent on 47 former or current senators from January through November this year, or an average of $28,127 per senator, The Nerve’s latest review found. In comparison, 125 present or former House members received a total of nearly $3.6 million in salary and expense payments from January through September, for an average taxpayer cost per member of $28,510, records show.

The Nerve found in a 2010 analysis that lawmakers then received an average of about $32,000 annually in salary and expense reimbursements.

In The Nerve story earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia, an attorney who lives less than two miles from the State House, said he believed it was difficult financially to serve as a legislator if “you don’t look at this job at $50,000 a year.”

The next week, Rep. John King, D-York and a funeral home owner, introduced a bill (H. 3108) that would guarantee each lawmaker $50,000 in annual compensation beginning with the 2015 legislative session. The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.