The Legislative Pay Raise You Likely Haven’t Heard About

January 16, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Pay Raise AheadS.C. lawmakers – at least those who live close to the State House – are getting a pay raise this year, though they probably won’t admit it publicly.

In passing the fiscal 2015 state budget, which took effect July 1, the 170-member General Assembly changed the wording of an obscure budget proviso (Proviso 91.4) dealing with “subsistence” payments, which are intended to cover hotel and food costs for lawmakers while they are in Columbia during session weeks. This year’s legislative session started Tuesday.

Lawmakers don’t have to provide any receipts to receive the payments; they only have to be recorded as being “present” during session days, which typically are Tuesdays through Thursdays.

During last year’s session, lawmakers received $140 daily subsistence payments, which, according, according to a previous budget proviso, could not exceed the “level authorized by the Internal Revenue Service for the Columbia area.”

But the lodging portion of the subsistence payment for this fiscal year is set, according to the revised proviso, at the “average daily rate for hotels in the Columbia Downtown area as defined by the Columbia Metro Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for the preceding fiscal year of 2013-14.”

This year’s subsistence rate for lawmakers is $175.79 per day, according to information provided this week to The Nerve by the House and Senate Clerk’s offices. That works out to be an increase of $35.79 per day – a collective $107.37 hike for the three session days each week – or a 25.5 percent jump, over last year. Based on the length of last year’s session, which ended in June, and assuming lawmakers were present every session day, the total increase this year would equate, at a minimum, to an average of about $1,800 for each legislator.

For lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the state capitol, subsistence payments are considered taxable income. Those who live outside the 50-mile radius will be taxed this year on $30.79 of the daily subsistence payment – the amount the IRS requires to be taxed above its authorized daily rate of $145, according to information from the House Clerk’s Office.

The Nerve previously has reported that Midlands lawmakers routinely accept subsistence payments for hotel and food costs, even though they live close enough to home to forgo the payments.

Contacted Thursday, Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, who lives about 14 miles from the State House, told The Nerve that while “I certainly don’t stay at hotels” during session weeks, he accepts subsistence payments, though he noted that his net amount is lower when taxes are deducted.

“My accountant reminds me every year, and they (taxes) are a big ol’ whopper,” he said.

Asked why he accepts subsistence payments given that he lives relatively close to the State House, Huggins, who, according to his online legislative biography, is director of business development for Duraclean, replied: “We work very hard with this job. I’d hate to take an hourly tab. I’d hate to get receipts like I do in my business – it would be crazy.”

Subsistence payments are only one of the taxpayer-funded pots of money that lawmakers tap yearly for what has been traditionally viewed as a part-time job. The Nerve in 2010 reported that legislators then received on average about $32,000 annually in combined salary, reimbursements and expenses.

From January through the first week of June 2014, House members received an average of $6,757 in subsistence payments; senators received an average of $7,774 in those payments over the same period, according to an earlier review by The Nerve of information provided under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. In recent years, the 124-member House has taken two weeks of furlough around Easter.

Legislators also are eligible to receive $1,000 in monthly “in-district” payments, which are considered taxable income, though state law requires county councils to provide office space and staff to their respective legislative delegations, with some counties paying lawmakers directly in lieu of that. The General Assembly last year tried to double in-district payments, which would have brought the annual total to $24,000, though Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed it, as reported by The Nerve.

In a written response Wednesday to The Nerve, House Clerk Charles Reid said that “all House members accept the $1,000 monthly in-district expense allowance.” Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett did not respond by publication of this story to questions from The Nerve about those payments to senators.

The in-district payments are on top of the $10,400 annual base salary that most lawmakers receive. Legislators who receive a legislative pension while in office aren’t eligible to receive a base annual salary, though they can receive other types of taxpayer-funded payments.

In a written response Thursday to The Nerve, Eric Ward, spokesman for S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, said all lawmakers, except those who are “retired and receiving benefits from the General Assembly Retirement System,” receive their base salary on the second Tuesday of each January, which is the annual start of the legislative session. Taxes are withheld from the base salary, he said.

The Nerve last year reported that a salary study quietly authorized two years earlier by the General Assembly recommended salary hikes for lawmakers of up to 192 percent.

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