Legislators Get an Average 32K Per Year

October 6, 2010

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

money

By itself, it’s not enough to make anybody rich. But it’s a lot more than $10,000.

Taxpaying South Carolinians, if your state lawmaker looks you in the face and says his or her legislative salary is a lowly $10,400, he or she is not telling you the whole story.

At the very least.

At worst, a member of the General Assembly poor mouthing to that effect without mentioning several other forms of compensation legislators pocket would be downright disingenuous.

The fact is, lawmakers receive on average about $32,000 per year in combined salary, reimbursements and expenses for serving part time in the Legislature and performing duties and tasks related to their legislative posts, according to an examination by The Nerve of legislative compensation for a recent two-and-a-half-year period.

In terms of lawmakers’ taxable legislative income, it is most often at least $22,400 per year – more than two times their $10,400 salary, and in some cases much higher – when other types of compensation legislators receive are added to their base pay.

The average annual total amount of lawmakers’ salary and expenses – $32,000 – is a little more than three times their baseline take-home, and that doesn’t include legislators’ pensions and health care benefits.

Indeed, while legislative pay is hardly on the order of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko’s, it’s not exactly a beans and rice wage, either.

Throw in free cocktails and meals from hordes of advocacy groups wining and dining lawmakers via receptions and the like, and the fruits of legislative office can take on a little high-on-the-hog quality, too.

“You can basically live off the special-interest groups over there during the (legislative) session,” says John Crangle, director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina.

Through various statutes and provisos, the Legislature sets its own level of compensation.

To be fair, lawmakers questioned about the matter generally are quick to point out that the General Assembly has not increased legislators’ salaries in 20 years.

In addition, a few members, such as Republican Rep. Joan Brady of Richland, are self-described full-time legislators; and a handful of others, such as Sens. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, declined to claim all of the money they could have during The Nerve’s review period.

“We need to lead by example as senators,” Davis says.

Still other lawmakers hold forth that their compensation does not cover all of the time and out-of-pocket costs they invest in legislative matters; that they are not in it for the money; and that if they were, they would hasten to find another line of work.

“I’ve never felt like I made any money on it,” Sen. Larry Martin, a Republican from Pickens, says of his service in the Legislature for 32 years, since 1978.

Nevertheless, for a part-time job pulling the strings of governmental power in the Palmetto State, weighted heavily as they are toward the legislative branch, compensation for lawmakers isn’t too shabby.

In fact, lawmakers’ average yearly compensation of $32,000 is right in line with South Carolina’s per capita income, which was about $31,800 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

To one degree or another, holding a legislative office arguably affords members intangible benefits, such as access and influence, in their private occupations as well.

Consider: The most common occupation among lawmakers is attorney, with a bevy of real estate agents and developers buttressing the ranks of the honorables.

DOING THE MATH

The Nerve arrived at the $32,000 average annual figure for lawmakers by computing all salary and other payments and expenses for every senator who served continuously from the beginning of 2008 through June of this year, and every House member from 2008 through July.

The Nerve obtained the financial data using the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

As part of its investigation into the true taxpayer costs of the state’s 170 lawmakers, The Nerve interviewed a dozen legislators from across the state – senators and House members, Republicans and Democrats, veterans and newbies.

The picture that emerged from The Nerve’s investigation is an opaque system of legislative compensation that masks the true costs of lawmakers.

The fogginess shows up in the other types of remuneration to legislators. In dollar amounts from most to least, the three largest supplemental payments to lawmakers are for “in-district expenses,” “subsistence” and mileage.

All three categories have caps, sort of:

  • In-district: $1,000 per month, or $12,000 annually.
  • Subsistence: $131 per legislative meeting day, whether in or out of session, for lodging and meals.
  • Mileage: 50 cents per mile for senators; 44.5 cents for House members.

Lawmakers also can claim a $35 per-diem for attending a legislative-related meeting on a non-session day, and they are provided allocations for postage and flags, too.

The vast majority of lawmakers claimed the annual maximum for in-district expenses during the 2.5-year review period.

Thus, at $12,000, that alone more than doubled their annual salaries – from $10,400 to $22,400.

Reinforcing the point, legislators’ in-district payments are treated as income for tax and pension purposes.

For lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the State House, their subsistence also is equated as income under the tax code.

Some legislators readily stated that they consider their salaries to be the whole of their various forms of compensation.

“It has to be kind of looked at as the total package,” Brady says.

Says Davis, who averaged $25,400 per year in total compensation and expenses, “I think that’s fair. I mean money is money, irrespective of what you call it.”

Brady, whose overall annual compensation and expenses averaged $34,200 during the 2.5-year timeframe, says being a legislator is her full-time job. “It’s a year-round sort of compensation,” she says. “Just because we’re not in session our legislative responsibilities are not over.”

Although payments to lawmakers for in-district, subsistence, mileage and per-diem expenses have certain confines, the $12,000 yearly in-district maximum is the only true cap, as there is no cumulative limit on subsistence, mileage and per-diem.

Moreover, the system of legislative compensation leaves it to lawmakers’ discretion, or lack thereof, to decide how much money they receive in each of the categories.

That’s because rather than their actual costs for in-district expenses, subsistence and per-diem, legislators receive lump-sum payment for those things – if they ask for them.

Yes, lawmakers do not have to claim the maximum amounts, or for that matter, anything for those forms of compensation. And, in fact, although they represent a minority of the Legislature, some lawmakers do not bill taxpayers for all of the money they are eligible to receive.

JUDGMENT CALL

That’s where their discretion, and their stewardship of public dollars, factor into the equation.

To that point, venture farther down the rabbit hole: In what arguably is the biggest loophole in the system of legislative compensation, lawmakers are not required to document, and therefore verify, their actual in-district and subsistence expenses.

Mileage is the one category with a built-in accountability feature. By checking legislators’ mileage filings against, say, Mapquest, a gumshoe-oriented watchdog could root out any funny business.

But when it comes to in-district and subsistence expenses, legislators file vouchers – not receipts – to claim those payments, filling in the amounts as they wish, up to the caps.

“It’s just not something that’s tracked,” Rep. Bakari Sellers, a second-term Democrat from Denmark, says of in-district disbursements.

Sellers averaged nearly $34,300 per year in compensation and expenses over the review period.

The House’s highest-ranking staff member, Clerk Charles Reid, confirmed the lack of verification of in-district, subsistence and per-diem expenses.

“I have no data or information related to spending patterns by lawmakers for in-district expense payments,” Reid said in an e-mail to The Nerve.

Concerning subsistence, mileage and per-diem, he wrote in another e-mail, “They fill out vouchers which must be approved by the committee chairman, signed by the speaker, and then signed by me. We know the mileage from their home to the State House – so that is easily verifiable. The amount of subsistence or per diem does not change.  It’s $131 or $35, respectively. There is nothing to ‘verify.’”

Thus, if they opted to do so, lawmakers could fake out the system and rake in some extra cash.

Consider such a scenario: A senator or representative from the Upstate or the Lowcountry drives to Columbia for session, breaks for lunch at a reception hosted by one special-interest group or another, does the same for dinner, crashes in town at a friend’s, and then files a voucher for the maximum daily subsistence of $131.

Does it happen?

Who can say? Because weak monitoring protocols that undermine transparency make such a scenario possible.

Why?

Common Cause director Crangle says that’s the fundamental question regarding legislators’ expenses. “Why can’t they turn in their receipts and get reimbursed for their actual expenses, rather than get these handouts that they’re getting at the present time?” he asks. “That would cure the abuse.”

Are some lawmakers in fact abusing their positions and gaming the system?

It’s an open question.

But the legislators The Nerve talked to for this inquiry mostly defended the status quo of legislative compensation.

“I don’t know how you game a system – I honestly don’t – where the salary hadn’t changed in 20 years,” Sen. Martin says. He adds that the in-district amount, up to $1,000 per month, hasn’t moved in 15 years.

At the same time, Martin and several other legislators said they would not object to a system that reimburses lawmakers for their actual expenses. “I wouldn’t have a problem doing that,” says Martin, whose average compensation and costs during the 2.5 years was about $26,700 per turn of the calendar.

“I think that the taxpaying public deserves to see a correlation between reimbursement and actual expenses,” Davis says.

IN-DISTRICT IN DETAIL

Almost all lawmakers claimed the annual maximum for in-district expenses, $12,000, even though South Carolina law, in a bit of legislative coercion, requires the state’s 46 counties to fund operating budgets for their legislative delegations. The law allows for state-imposed financial penalties on those that don’t.

The county dollars pay for legislators to have local office space and staff support and so forth, although many counties, especially smaller ones, do not have delegation offices.

Legislators’ in-district payments are treated as income – taxed and factored into their pensions, according to Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett.

Several lawmakers confirmed to The Nerve that their in-district payments are taxed as income, and this news site reported in an Aug. 17 story that the money is credited toward legislators’ pensions.

So, what exactly do lawmakers do with their in-district paychecks?

“We’ve never been required to document what we do with it,” says Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Clarendon and the longest-serving member of the Legislature. “It’s a form of salary.”

Land, who rang up an average of $24,200 per year in compensation and expenses, does not draw a salary as a lawmaker. Instead, he receives a legislative pension, an option he was eligible to take after serving the 30th of his 36 years in the General Assembly.
When lawmakers are performing legislative duties back home, Land says, “We don’t get any compensation whatsoever, and we don’t get any mileage.”

He says in-district payments are “well deserved by all members of the General Assembly.”

Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, says he mainly uses his in-district allotments to pay for newsletters and other types of informational mailings to his constituents. “I do one every two weeks while I’m in session,” he says. “That gets real expensive.”

McEachern’s average annual compensation and expenses were just under $22,000.

While the question of whether lawmakers are overpaid is debatable, this much is certain:

The convoluted system of legislative compensation raises serious questions related to transparency and accountability.

Investigative reporter Rick Brundrett and research intern Matthew Snider contributed to this story. Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.