S.C. Taxpayers Shell Out $1.46 Million Yearly for Senators

September 3, 2014

Investigative Reports

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SC Senate Chamber

‘SUBSISTENCE’ PAYMENTS ADD UP

When Glenn McConnell was the state’s lieutenant governor last year, he earned a $46,544 salary for the part-time job.

What isn’t as well known is that the Senate in 2013 provided the Charleston Republican another $8,122 in “subsistence” payments meant to cover hotel and food costs for senators while on official legislative business, according to Senate records provided to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

From January through June of this year, McConnell, while lieutenant governor, took in $6,300 in subsistence payments from the Senate, which works out to 45 legislative days at the Senate rate of $140 per day.

Records show that taxpayers paid a total of about $1.46 million for senators’ salaries and expenses last year, and $1.15 million for the first seven months of this year for the 46-member chamber, which carried over about $7 million for the chamber into the fiscal year that started July 1.

The Nerve in July reported that taxpayers paid a total of $3.85 million last year for salaries and expenses for the 124-member House, and a collective $2.93 million through June 6 of this year, according to House records obtained under the FOIA.

McConnell, the former Senate president pro tempore and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who resigned his lieutenant governor’s post in June to become the College of Charleston president, wasn’t exactly hurting for money when he was the state’s second-in-command.

His annual income-disclosure statement filed with the State Ethics Commission showed he received a $48,515 legislative pension last year on top of his $46,544 salary as lieutenant governor, plus a $1,575 salary as the Senate president while the lieutenant governor.

State law (Section 2-3-30 of the S.C. Code of Laws) allows the lieutenant governor, who presides over Senate while it is in session, and legislators to receive subsistence payments during session, though the daily amount is capped at $50 under the old statute. In recent years, state budget provisos, which have to be renewed annually, set subsistence payments for lawmakers during session at Internal Revenue Service rates for the Columbia area – which likely will increase this fiscal year – though nothing in those provisos dealing with legislators specified that the lieutenant governor receive that benefit.

Lawmakers don’t have to turn in expense receipts to receive subsistence payments; during regular session days – Tuesdays through Thursdays – they just have to be recorded as being present.

The Nerve on Tuesday left a written message with Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett seeking comment about why McConnell, who became the lieutenant governor in 2012 with the resignation of Ken Ard, was allowed to receive legislative subsistence payments while he was the lieutenant governor. No response was received by publication of this story.

Senate and House members receive a base annual salary of $10,400, though those who get legislative pensions while in office can’t receive the base salary. Senate records show that at least 14 veteran legislators received no base salary last year; for example, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, received $36,148 and $27,177, respectively, in retirement benefits last year, according to their annual income-disclosure statements.

Lawmakers, including those who get legislative pensions, can receive up to $12,000 annually in “in-district” payments, which are considered income, even though state law requires counties to provide office space and staff for legislative delegations. That means that for most lawmakers, their total annual legislative salary is $22,400.

On top of that, lawmakers receive a variety of other taxpayer-funded benefits. Besides subsistence payments, they also get per-diem payments for approved meetings on non-legislative session days, mileage reimbursements for round trips between their homes and the Capitol during session, and payments to cover their legislative postage. Committee chairmen receive an additional $650 per year.

The Nerve’s review of Senate records found that of the total $1,457,683 for salaries and expenses in 2013, $547,806, or about 38 percent, was for in-district payments, followed by $403,067 (28 percent) in subsistence payments, $335,575 (23 percent) for base salaries, and $106,682 (7 percent) for mileage reimbursements.

The average total taxpayer cost for senators last year was $30,368, The Nerve’s review found.

For those who live within 50 miles of the State House, “subsistence” payments are considered taxable income; Senate records, for example, distinguish between “reportable” and “non-reportable” subsistence payments.

The Nerve repeatedly has questioned why Midlands lawmakers who live relatively close to the State House accept subsistence payments for hotel and meal costs during legislative session weeks. Senate records for last year show that 10 Midlands senators on both sides of the aisle received “reportable” subsistence payments, including then-Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, and Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who were paid $8,786 and $9,834, respectively.

After being elected in 2012, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, told The Nerve that she would not accept any subsistence payments. She kept her promise all of last year, though Senate records show she received $7,280 in subsistence payments through July of this year.

Contacted Tuesday, Shealy told The Nerve she started accepting subsistence payments after quitting her $85,000-a-year insurance job so she could devote herself full-time to being a senator. Her total taxpayer cost last year, including her base salary and in-district payments, was $27,021; so far this year, her total taxpayer tab, including subsistence payments, is $25,788, records show.

“Seriously, I didn’t want to take it (subsistence payments), but I didn’t have a job anymore,” said Shealy, who is married. “If it gets to the point where I’ve got a job and I don’t have to spend all my time in the Senate, I will quit taking it.”

Shealy said although the regular legislative session typically runs from January through June, she works full-time as senator in the off months, noting, “I probably work 40 hours a week just on DSS stuff.”

Shealy, who said she does not stay in hotels while the Legislature is in session, described subsistence payments as a “supplemental salary,” adding, “$10,400 a year is not enough if you’re doing your job.”

The Nerve reported in May that Leatherman was behind a push to double lawmakers’ monthly in-district income to $2,000 from $1,000. The Nerve also reported that month that legislators would see salary hikes of up to 192 percent under recommendations in a salary study quietly authorized two years ago by the General Assembly.

Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the proposed in-district payment increase, though the House overrode it after a quick recount vote. The Senate failed to override the veto; on June 19, the last day of the regular session, Sen. Scott unsuccessfully tried to convince his colleagues to reconsider their earlier vote.

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