Lawmakers collect thousands in per diem during special sessions

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by TERRI GRUCA / KVUE News and photojournalist DATHAN HULL

Bio | Email | Follow: @TerriG_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on July 23, 2013 at 10:42 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 12:20 PM

AUSTIN -- When it comes to politics, there's a price for doing business.

Each special session costs tax payers between $1 million and $1.2 million.

During the first special session the majority of that money, nearly $689,550 came from per diem. That’s the $150 a day that lawmakers are allowed to collect to pay for hotels, meals and travel.

"The intent is to reimburse people just for the times they're in Austin," said Tom “Smitty” Smith, state director for Public Citizen, a non-profit watchdog group.

Smith’s concern is that most lawmakers, 112 representatives and 21 senators, took the maximum allowed -- $4,350.

“There were other lawmakers who took virtually no per diem but were clearly here every day of the session,” said Smith. “And others whose per diem record indicated that they were clearly absent about half the time, just didn't show up for the session, and that was reflected in their attendance records."

The first special session ran 29 days, yet the full House only met for seven days; the full Senate met for nine days.

"To take a month’s worth of per diem just because the legislature is in session is kind of stretching the envelope," said Smith.

These four lawmakers didn't take a penny of per diem : Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Senator Kirk Watson, both of whom live in Austin, and Senator Glenn Hegar of Katy and Representative Byron Cook of Corsicana.

Senator Glenn Hegar was the only lawmaker to return KVUE's request for a comment about this story. He sent us this statement:

"I did not expect the Texas taxpayers to pay me per diem, since the legislature was not working everyday in Austin during the beginning of the special session.  Furthermore, during the days that I was not required to be in committee hearings and session, I was working on my race for Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts."

Keep in mind some lawmakers do attend committee meetings even when the full House and Senate are not in session, but some are not in Austin and collect the per diem anyway, and that's perfectly legal.

 

“It shows a pattern and practice of a problem we need to fix; in that the per diem ought to be linked directly to the days they are here in Austin and having to pay out of pocket expenses for their time here," said Smith.

What a lot of Texans may not realize is Texas lawmakers' salaries are among the lowest in the country -- $7,200 a year.

"That's it? That's terrible," said Tristan King.

"I thought they were making a lot of money. That's shocking to hear," said Joanna Escobar.

"I think homeless people could make more than that in a year. That's crazy!” said Devan Uhrig.

"The model that lawmakers shouldn't make any money is really the British model," said Bill Lasser, a political science professor from Clemson University visiting Austin.

Lasser said many people see politics as a duty.

“But now we've created a system where to spend the time running for office, to know the people, to run for office, you have to have a lot of money on the side,” said Lasser.

"You can't afford to live on that little amount of money and most legislators are either very wealthy, have an employer that subsidizes them while they're down here, work as consultants for variety of people who have special interests here, or have remarkably tolerant spouses who are willing to fund them to be here,” said Smith. “That's not a good way to get a real, representative government."

Studies show the average lawmaker works 60 hours a week during the regular session; chairmen often 80 to 100 hours a week.

"We need to be paying our legislators a living wage for the time they're down here," said Smith.

Smith said the $150 a day per diem has become a substitute for a real paycheck.

“That per diem ought to be linked directly to the days they are here in Austin and having to pay out of pocket expenses for their time here," Smith.

By the time the second special session ends, lawmakers stand to collect an additional $1.4 million in per diem.

Click here to House lawmakers' per diem and here to see Senate lawmakers' per diem.

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