Incumbent Midlands Lawmakers Won’t Give Up ‘Subsistence’ Payments

December 5, 2012

Investigative Reports

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SC House ChamberS.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford lives less than two miles from the State House, yet if he attends two days of House organizational sessions this week in Columbia, he is eligible to receive $262 in expense payments meant  to cover hotel and food costs.

The Richland County Democrat on Monday told The Nervethat while he doesn’t stay in hotels while the Legislature is in session, he nonetheless accepts the $131-per-day “subsistence” payments offered to all state lawmakers. Those payments typically total in the thousands of dollars annually for each legislator.

“To pretend that everyone who serves in government should go broke is silly,” said Rutherford, a self-employed criminal defense attorney. “What job would allow me six months off a year Tuesday through Thursday?”

The General Assembly’s regular session typically runs Tuesdays through Thursdays starting on the second Tuesday in January and ending no later than the first Thursday in June, though lawmakers usually return later to take up the governor’s vetoes and conference committee reports. The 124-member House met Tuesday at the State House for an organizational session and is scheduled to return today.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Rutherford and other incumbent House members from Richland and Lexington counties, both Democrats and Republicans, wouldn’t commit to giving up their subsistence payments, despite pledges by at least two incoming Midlands legislators to do so.

Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland and a former city of Columbia councilman who replaced Republican Rep. Jim Harrison (Harrison retired earlier this year as a lawmaker but recently was hired to head the Legislative Council, which drafts bills); and Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington and who ousted GOP Sen. Jake Knotts in the Nov. 6 election, told The Nerve this week that they won’t accept subsistence payments while in office.

Both Knotts and Harrison took the payments in past years, records show.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money,” said Shealy, an insurance underwriter. “I live 16 miles from the State House. I’m going to go home every night.”

“I was eating before I was in the Senate,” she added, “so I don’t expect taxpayers to pay for that.”

“Obviously, there is no need for me to have a hotel,” said Finlay, a business owner who lives about five miles from the State House. “It’s not like I’m away from my family.”

The Nerve first pointed out more than two years ago that Richland and Lexington County legislative delegation members were receiving thousands of dollars annually in subsistence payments despite living relatively close to the Capitol. Finlay and Shealy are the first Midlands lawmakers since then to publicly reject the payments.

From January through September this year, 20 present or former House members who represented Richland or Lexington counties received a total of $162,309 in subsistence payments, or an average of $8,115 per legislator, according to a review by The Nerve of House expense records obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. That works out to be an average of about 62 legislative days covered by the payments.

Nearly $975,000 was spent collectively during the nine-month period on subsistence payments to all House members, The Nerve’s review found.

Lawmakers can claim the daily $131 payments as long as they are recorded as present for that day’s legislative session, according to information from the House clerk’s office. Several Midlands legislators contacted by The Nerve said their  payments are taxable because they live within 50 miles of the Capitol.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, who lives about 16 miles from the State House, told The Nerve on Monday that he although he doesn’t stay in hotels while the Legislature is in session, he will continue to accept subsistence payments.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s considered base pay for this position,” he said, noting that the standard mileage reimbursement he receives for traveling to the State House doesn’t “cover all your costs.”

Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, who lives about seven miles from the Capitol, questioned whether Shealy was “grandstanding” by pledging not to accept subsistence payments, and whether he was allowed to decline the payments. He said a “clearer, fairer system” would involve getting reimbursed for actual lodging and food costs.

Republican incumbents contacted by The Nerve also wouldn’t commit to giving up their subsistence payments.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine of Chapin, who lives about 19 miles from the State House, said in an email Tuesday to The Nerve that 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 continued, though adding, “With my kids getting older, I can’t continue to afford to give back this income at the present time.”

Rep. Chip Huggins, a Lexington County Republican who lives about 14 miles from the Capitol, told The Nerve on Monday that although he doesn’t stay in hotels during legislative sessions, his subsistence payments are meant to “offset the costs of serving the people.”

Asked whether he would give up his subsistence payments, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, replied, “I’ll have to think about it.” Quinn, whose home is about 13 miles from the State House, is a former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

The Nerve sent written messages this week to all incumbent Midlands House members and followed up with phone calls to some, asking them whether they planned to continue accepting subsistence payments.

Besides the above listed lawmakers, the House incumbents included Reps. Jimmy Bales, Mia Butler Garrick, Chris Hart, Leon Howard and James Smith, all Richland County Democrats; and the following Lexington County delegation members: Republican Reps. Todd Atwater; Kenny Bingham, the outgoing House majority leader; Kit Spires and Mac Toole; and Democratic Rep. Harry Ott, the House minority leader.

Most of the incumbents did not respond by publication of this story.

Besides subsistence payments, House members also are entitled to receive a base $10,400 salary, except for those members who already get legislative pensions; and can receive “in-district” payments of up to $12,000 annually.

In addition, House members are reimbursed at 44.5 cents per mile for one round-trip per week while the Legislature is session, and are provided additional reimbursement for approved official travel on non-session days. They also each can receive up to $500 for postage and $250 for flag costs annually.

From January through September this year, 125 present or former House members received a total of nearly $3.6 million in salary and expense payments, The Nerve’s review found. The average taxpayer cost per member for the nine-month period was $28,510.

The Nerve in late October submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett for Senate member expense records for this year, though the information has not yet been released.

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

Rutherford on Monday said he believes it’s difficult financially to serve as a lawmaker if “you don’t look at this job at $50,000 a year.”

Absent a salary at that level, “those people who are financially independent or independently wealthy – that’s all we are going to get,” he said.

Rutherford also said that besides lawmakers, the governor and state attorney general are underpaid as well. Gov. Nikki Haley’s and Attorney General Alan Wilson’s salaries are $106,078 and $92,007, respectively. Rutherford said the governor “needs to make at least $200,000 a year,” while the attorney general should earn $160,000 annually.

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