Taxpayer Tab for House Members’ Salaries, Expenses Pushing $4 Million

July 7, 2014

Investigative Reports

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SC HouseS.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell has bragged in recent years that House furloughs save taxpayers $50,000 a week in mileage, meals and lodging expenses.

But what Harrell failed to mention about this year’s three-week layoff is that neither he nor anyone else in the 124-member chamber who receives a $10,400 base salary plus another $1,000 monthly in “in-district” income saw those paychecks shrink – unlike what typically happens to furloughed private-sector workers’ pay.

And, at the end of the day, S.C. taxpayers are stuck with a multimillion-dollar tab for less than six months of actual work in Columbia by lawmakers who annually descend on the Capital City starting on the second Tuesday in January.

A review by The Nerve of House expense records obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act found that taxpayers shelled out a total of $3.85 million last year in salaries and expenses for House members, and $2.93 million through June 6 of this year.

For 2013, that worked out to be an average taxpayer cost of $30,806 per representative. And that didn’t include the salaries and benefits paid to House staff members, along with other chamber costs. The House has a total ratified budget of $21.67 million for the fiscal year that started last Tuesday.

The Nerve reported in May that a study quietly authorized by the General Assembly two years ago recommended that base salaries for lawmakers be increased by up to 192 percent.

The House this year added a new expense category: Beginning Jan. 1, the House reimbursed members for “stationery/envelope/business card expenses incurred pursuant to members’ official state business activities,” House Clerk Charles Reid said in a June 30 letter to The Nerve. A total of $3,441 was spent by 16 House members through June 6; most received $250, records show.

Harrell was not in the “stationery” group. But the Charleston Republican, who has been the House speaker since 2005 and was first elected to the House in 1992, led all House members in total taxpayer costs last year and so far this year – $44,772 and $35,804, respectively – mainly because he receives an additional $11,000 annually as speaker.

Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington and the House speaker pro tempore, receives an additional $3,600 in salary, while committee chairmen make an additional $650.

Most House members’ annual salary is $22,400, made up of a $10,400 base salary and $12,000 in annual in-district payments, which are counted as income for tax purposes. Lawmakers tried this year to double their in-district payments to $24,000 – with Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, introducing the proposal late in the budget process, as The Nerve previously reported – though their efforts died in the Senate on the last day of session.

The Nerve’s review of House expense records found that all but three lawmakers accepted the full $12,000 in 2013, and every House member took the $1,000 monthly payments in the first five months of this year. Taxpayers covered a total of nearly $1.5 million in in-district payments to House members in 2013 – the single-biggest category in The Nerve’s review. The next-largest category was the base $10,400 salary; a total of about $1.2 million was paid out last year in that category.

And those payments are on top of a requirement under state law that counties provide office space and staff to local legislative delegations. In lieu of that, some counties pay lawmakers directly, The Nerve reported in May.

Besides in-district payments and their base annual salary, House members also receive the following expense payments, according to House records provided to The Nerve:

  • Daily “subsistence” payments of $140 for hotel and food costs during session weeks in Columbia. The Nerve previously has reported how Midlands lawmakers routinely accept those payments, though Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, kept an earlier promise to The Nerve and declined the payments in 2013 and so far this year, records show. In 2013, those payments for all House members totaled $887,263;
  • Mileage reimbursement for one round trip per week between a lawmaker’s home and the State House during session weeks; the reimbursement this year is 56 cents per mile, based on Internal Revenue Service guidelines, according to the House Clerk’s Office. In 2013, those payments totaled $188,101;
  • Other travel-expense reimbursements for official legislative business. In 2013, those payments totaled $25,167;
  • A flat $500 annual postage expense payment, which virtually every House member accepts. In 2013, those payments totaled $62,000; and
  • Up to $250 annually for American flags. In 2013, those payments totaled $10,819.

Following is a list of the 10 House members with the highest total salaries and expenses last year, based on House records provided to The Nerve:

  • Harrell – $44,772;
  • Brian White, R-Anderson and the Ways and Means Committee chairman – $35,982;
  • Lucas – $35,213;
  • Nelson Hardwick, R-Horry and the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee chairman – $34,578;
  • Bill Whitmire, R-Oconee – $34,344;
  • Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman – $34,334;
  • Alan Clemmons, R-Horry and the Rules Committee chairman – $34,231;
  • Tracy Edge, R-Horry – $33,571;
  • Weston Newton, R-Beaufort – $33,376; and
  • David Mack, D-Charleston – $33,344

A dozen House members this year received no $10,400 base salary, which typically means they get a legislative pension, as The Nerve has previously reported. State law bans lawmakers from receiving their base salary and a legislative pension at the same time, though they can continue receiving in-district payments and extra pay for being a committee chairman.

The 12 House members with no $10,400 base salary this year include Jimmy Bales, D-Richland; Liston Barfield, R-Horry and the Invitations and Memorial Resolutions Committee chairman; Grady Brown, D-Lee; Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; Greg Delleney, R-Chester and the House Judiciary Committee chairman; Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg; Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon; Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell; Roland Smith, R-Aiken; Mike Sottile, R-Charleston; David Weeks, D-Sumter; and Seth Whipper, D-Charleston, House records show.

The Nerve last month submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for S.C. senators’ salaries and expenses for 2013 and so far this year. Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett in a written response to The Nerve on June 24 said 2014 figures were not immediately available, noting, “We are currently in the middle of reports closing out the fiscal year.”

The Nerve will provide a report on those salaries and expenses for 2013 and 2014 through June when all of the information becomes available.

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