In the first eight months of this year, S.C. Sens. Jake Knotts, John Scott and Nikki Setzler of the Midlands each received $9,563 in taxpayer-funded “subsistence” payments intended to cover hotel and food costs in Columbia while on official legislative business.
It’s highly unlikely, however, that any of the three lawmakers needed a hotel or three daily restaurant meals. Knotts, a Lexington County Republican; Scott, a Richland County Democrat; and Setzler, a Lexington County Democrat, all live within 10 miles of the State House.
In comparison, Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville County Republican, has received the same amount of subsistence payments this year, though records show that he lives more than 100 miles away from the Capitol.
The situation isn’t a fluke.
A review by The Nerve of state House and Senate expense records, obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, found that from the start of last year through August of this year, 23 Richland or Lexington County legislators living within 25 miles of the State House have received subsistence payments equal to or greater than payments to lawmakers who live farther away.
In some cases, the commuting differences are rather striking. Take Sens. John Courson, R-Richland, and Kent Williams, D-Marion, for example.
Courson lives less than three miles from the Capitol, while Williams’ home is about 113 miles away. Yet each received $9,301 in subsistence payments through August of this year, records show.
Similar examples can be found among the Midlands House delegation. For instance, Reps. Kenny Bingham, the House majority leader, and Chip Huggins, both Lexington County Republicans; and Joe McEachern, a Richland County Democrat, each received $8,122 in subsistence payments in the first eight months of this year, records show.
Bingham and McEachern live less than seven miles from the State House, while Huggins’ home is slightly more than 14 miles away. In comparison, Rep. Curtis Brantley, D-Jasper, also has received $8,122 this year, though he lives more than 124 miles from the Capitol, records show.
Including former lawmakers, the Midlands delegation was paid a total of $363,001 in subsistence for the period starting Jan. 1, 2010, through Aug. 31, The Nerve’s review found. And lawmakers living in Richland and Lexington County collectively received more subsistence payments in the first eight months of this year compared to all of last year.
Lawmakers can receive $131 per day in subsistence payments while they are on legislative business, whether or not the General Assembly is in session. Typically, though, the payments are made for Tuesdays through Thursdays, the days when lawmakers usually are in session.
For example, $9,563 in subsistence claimed through August by Knotts, Scott and Setzler – the highest amount among the Midlands delegation – works out to 73 legislative days.
Excluding Fridays when some local bills are dealt with, the Senate met in session for 75 days this year, while the House met for 62 days, official chamber journals show.
A state budget proviso has kept the subsistence rate frozen at a 2008 Internal Revenue Service level.
Defending the Status Quo
In interviews this week with The Nerve, Midlands lawmakers defended their subsistence pay, contending that they follow the law and don’t abuse the system, though several said they would be open to changes.
“I’ve viewed this as part of my legislative pay,” said Huggins, who was elected to the House in 1999, though he added, “If we need to look at this thing and make sure this is a fair system, I’m all for it.”
Courson, who has been a senator for about 27 years, said he was told around the time he joined the Senate that subsistence payments were offered to Midlands lawmakers to “get legislative pay up to close to what the Richland County Council pay was” at the time. He added, however, he didn’t know if that were the case now.
Scott, who served 18 years in the House before starting in the Senate in 2009, said unlike subsistence payments to lawmakers living outside the Midlands, their pay is taxed because it’s considered income under IRS regulations.
“It’s not like we’re falling into a windfall,” said McEachern, a former Richland County Council councilman and chairman who began serving in the House in 2009, when asked about his subsistence pay. “If you look at the tax bracket I’m in, and if you look at the costs I have, at the end of the day I’m at a loss.”
McEachern said he would be willing to consider switching to a system that relies on hotel and restaurant receipts for reimbursement. House Clerk Charles Reid acknowledged last year to The Nerve that although subsistence vouchers by a House member must be signed by him, the legislator’s committee chairman and the House speaker, “there is nothing to verify” the lawmaker’s expenditure claim.
As far as meals go, lawmakers don’t have to look hard during the legislative session for free meals offered to them by various groups vying for their attention.
McEachern and other Midlands lawmakers interviewed by The Nerve contended that their total legislative pay is relatively low compared to what they described as long, often unpredictable hours they put into the job. Several said unlike legislators who live outside the Midlands, they often have constituent obligations in their communities in the evenings after day-long sessions in the General Assembly.
“Everybody’s jumping up and down, but they just don’t pay us (much) money,” Scott said. “We work 12 months a year. Our work doesn’t stop when we leave the General Assembly (after session).”
Lawmakers are entitled to receive a $10,400 base salary, unless, as pointed out by The Nerve last year, they are receiving a legislative pension, plus another $12,000 annually for “in-district” expenses, which also is treated as taxable income.
For Midlands lawmakers, their total income often is more compared to what their counterparts from other parts of the state earn, when subsistence is included. For example, Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and Leon Howard, D-Richland, each earned a total of $31,172 last year – the highest incomes among Midlands House members in 2010, according to House records.
House and Senate records, however, do not reflect legislative pensions, which, because of a generous retirement benefits formula, typically are much higher than the base $10,400 salary.
Courson, for example, told The Nerve that his annual legislative pension is $32,390.40. Assuming that he takes the full $12,000 in in-district payments this year (he was paid $7,800 through August, records show) and that his total subsistence payments remain at $9,563, his total legislative salary for 2011 would be $53,953.40.
Courson said before he started receiving his pension, his base annual salary was $10,000, noting he didn’t accept a $400 raise when legislative salaries were last increased in 1991. He also said he never has accepted mileage reimbursement, despite traveling throughout the state on legislative matters; never has used a state telephone card to make long-distance calls; and doesn’t take subsistence payments when the General Assembly is not in session.
“I’m not in this because of any financial consideration,” Courson said.
He added that he knows of lawmakers who live outside the Midlands and accept subsistence payments while the Legislature is in session, though some of them stay with friends in Columbia at no cost while others routinely drive home at night.
When Gov. Nikki Haley, a Lexington County Republican, was a House member, she also accepted thousands of dollars in subsistence payments, The Nerve’s review found. In 2010, for example, she received $6,157.
The Nerve’s review found that the Midlands delegation received a total of $187,068 through the first eight months of this year – $11,135 more than what was claimed last year.
The Nerve on Tuesday asked Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey for a response for this story but did not receive a reply.
The Senate records provided to The Nerve classify subsistence as “reportable” or “non-reportable,” depending upon where the senator lives. The payments are not specified that way in the House records, though Reid, the House clerk, told The Nerve last year that the payments are treated as reportable income for lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the State House.
When all lawmakers are included, more than $1.38 million in subsistence payments was made through August of this year, about $25,000 more than what was claimed all of last year, The Nerve’s review found. Excluding Fridays, the House was in session for four more days this year compared to last year, while the Senate was in session for six more days, official chamber journals show.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and the Senate Finance Committee chairman, topped all lawmakers through August of this year with $11,135 in subsistence payments, followed by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston ($10,611); Sens. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, the Senate majority leader, ($10,218 each); and Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington ($10,087), records show.
Following is a list of the Midlands delegation and the amounts of subsistence payments they received this year through August:
- Sens. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington; John Scott, D-Richland; Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington – $9,563;
- Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland – $9,432;
- Sen. John Courson, R-Richland – $9,301;
- Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland – $8,646;
- Reps. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; Chip Huggins, R-Lexington; Joe McEachern, D-Richland – $8,122;
- Reps. Chris Hart, D-Richland; Leon Howard, D-Richland; Joe Neal, D-Richland; Kit Spires, R-Lexington – $7,991;
- Reps. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland; Joan Brady, R-Richland – $7,860;
- Reps. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland; Mac Toole, R-Lexington – $7,729;
- Reps. Jim Harrison, R-Richland; Rick Quinn, R-Lexington – $7,598;
- Rep. Mia Butler Garrick, D-Richland – $7,467;
- Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington – $7,336;
- Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland – $6,943; and
- Rep. James Smith, D-Richland – $6,550
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.