Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are fond of saying they’re paid practically peanuts to serve as state legislators.
Many drive for hours from all over the state to be in Nashville four days a week, work long hours to comb through legislation, meet with constituents, make appearances at events — then spend the nights away from their families sleeping in hotel rooms or rented apartments.
But in reality, lawmakers take home more money as part-time legislators than most Tennesseans do in a year. Not to mention they get in on a handful of perks.
Looking at annual salary alone, lawmakers take home no less than $20,000 a year. Factor in their per diem for food and lodging, health insurance benefits and 401K, and it’s closer to $60,000.
Tennessee’s legislature is one of almost two dozen across the country viewed as not quite full-time but more intensive than a half-time gig, spending roughly 70 percent of their time on elected duties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Here, lawmakers collect a legislative salary of $20,203 a year. Add in $12,000 a year for a home office — regardless whether they’ve set one up — and lawmakers make $8,000 more annually than the average Tennessean.
According to the U.S. Census, the per capita income in the state was $24,197 as recently at 2011.
State legislators also collect $173 in per diem expenses to cover their food and lodging while working at the seat of government or conducting government business, an amount tied to federal government rates. The daily automatic pay breaks down to $107 a night for lodging and $66 for meals and incidentals, whether the money is used for those reasons or not.
Sitting senators last year took home more than $14,600 on average in per diem, according to a review of state records by The City Paper. Legislators in the House of Representatives averaged more than $13,800 each in per diem.
At least one former lawmaker has been known to sleep in his legislative office and pocket the per diem money instead of staying at a hotel, said Sen. Bill Ketron, the Senate Republican Caucus chairman, who declined to reveal who. And there may be more, he said.
Elected lawmakers also are entitled to 47 cents for each mile they put on their vehicle in a round trip to and from the Capitol. That check is as much as $262 a week for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who lives in Blountville in upper East Tennessee, and is as little as $15.98 a week to Sen. Ferrell Haile driving in from Gallatin.
Most Nashville-area lawmakers don’t collect mileage costs, although they commute to the Capitol four days a week, but they still collect the lodging portion of their per diem — and there’s a movement to end that.
The measure, sponsored by Haile in the Senate, would eliminate the lodging portion of the per diem for lawmakers like him who live within 50 miles of the Capitol. Unless the Speaker OKs them to spend the night — like in the event the legislature works late with plans to come back early — that lawmaker would normally get $66 per day.
In return, those area-lawmakers could cash in mileage reimbursements for each day’s round-trip drive to the Capitol Building where they report Monday through Thursday during session, and for legislative business in the political off-season.
Although the changes wouldn’t kick in until the next General Assembly is elected in 2014, there is already some political maneuvering against the bill. Ketron, who lives about 30 miles from the Hill, wants to add that each lawmaker living outside the 50-mile circle of the Capitol turn in lodging receipts to get reimbursed, preventing people from “milking the system.”
Ketron himself was accused of exploiting per diems during his last bid for office in 2010. He took home more than $21,000 in food and lodging per diems, although he slept at his Murfreesboro home. The amount was the highest among his Nashville-area peers, although the amount is taxed as income because he lives close to the capitol.
He said at the time he considered the full per diem payments as supplementing his income, adding if his then-opponent “thinks that she can come down here and be the one voice that changes 131 other people into getting rid of it, good luck to her. I don’t think anybody’s going to give that up because of the sacrifices that legislators make.”
Although the per diem pay has dropped several dollars since then, Ketron collected more than $19,000 in per diem in 2011 and about $16,600 last year.
In the House of Representatives, his attempt to level the playing field for lawmakers living outside the Capitol’s 50-mile bubble amounts to a poison pill, said Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, who is sponsoring the legislation in the lower chamber and said he will reject any attempt to change his bill.
For years, lawmakers have also had the added bonus of cashing their state-issued checks in the treasurer’s office for no charge. This year, the handful of lawmakers still receiving paper checks can now cash them across the street from Legislative Plaza at the First Tennessee Bank — also for no charge.
“The legislators for the most part don’t live here. They don’t have banking relationships here in Nashville,” said Treasurer David Lillard, who added that free check-cashing for lawmakers dates back at least to World War II. “They have extremely demanding schedules.”
Lawmakers can also opt into the state’s health insurance program for state employees, which covers 80 percent of the premium. The state’s share of monthly premiums ranges from nearly $6,000 for individuals to $15,400 for families.
Long-term, sitting lawmakers also qualify to cash in on pension benefits once they leave office. After hitting 55 years of age, lawmakers who have served at least four years can begin collecting a pension that boils down to $81.73 per month for each year in the General Assembly. That’s a minimum of almost $4,000 a year for a lawmaker who spent the four years in the legislature needed to qualify.
In Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s eyes, the perks lawmakers get now are fair. He himself put money into a home office, splits an apartment with two other legislators and commutes nearly 300 miles to the Capitol each week. Simply put, there’s no need for change, he said.
“In the end, I don’t really think that it’s abused that much. Any time there’s 132 legislators, you’re going to find one or two that might,” he said. “I think the system now is working fine, I do.”