Gavin Lesnick of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports on further discussions of the state commission that will set public official pay and also make a recommendation on expenses.
Good news. The commission seems inclined to make recommendations that will curb existing abuse of per diem. This is the $150 per day payment that legislators (the rate is lower for people who live close to the Capitol) have been drawing even for weekends and recess days during a session when they are not working. Also, non-committee members often come to town, sign in, then claim the per diem.
The commission seems inclined to recommend at least a reduction, if not an elimination, of per diem for non-committee members. But they also need to recommend an END to per diem for days not worked.
More interesting was the first talk of what pay levels might be for legislators.
Legislative pay ranges included $25,000 from Commissioner Stephen Tipton, a general agreement to that from Mitch Berry, $19,050 from Chairman Larry Ross and a strong disagreement from Vice Chair Chuck Banks, who thought legislators should be paid $45,000 to $55,000. Barbara Graves said that was too high and Tipton said the pay shouldn’t exceed per capita income. That’s roughly $34,000. Several commissioners also said they’d recommend a bit higher pay for House and Senate leaders.
Banks said the commission should look long-term in jumping pay substantially. Not really. Amendment 94 allows the commission to grant a pay raise yearly. It is unlimited this year and still can be 15 percent a year in each succeeding year. That’s ample catchup opportunity in a state where the average worker’s pay has lost ground, adjusted for inflation, over the last couple of decades.
I’ve said before and say again that the legislature wasn’t designed constitutionally as a full-time body. Part of the extended work comes from unnecessary work and make-busy efforts by legislators who want this to be a full-time job and to be compensated as such. I think we’re better served by citizen legislators who work at real jobs, uncossetted by lobbyists, most of the year.
The Arkansas Public Law Center, on whose board I sit and which brought a previous successful lawsuit over legislative expense abuses, has a lawyer, Bettina Brownstein, participating in the proceedings. I don’t know if she submitted some recommendations today, but they were in progress last I heard. I believe they were going to be more generous than you might expect — including a recommendation for a legislative pay increase of a almost 100 percent of current pay around $15,800 to about $31,000.
But the higher pay recommendation comes with some specific and necessary expense controls. They would begin with no per diem for days not worked and attested to. Expense reimbursement would be allowed only for actual expenses, documented as to specifics and business purpose. We’d like to see an end to nepotism and the sham salary supplement by which legislators are drawing a flat monthly fee paid in return for a bill from an LLC run by a spouse. Mileage reimbursement should be no more than that paid other state employees and should not be paid for driving to the Capitol. That’s what tax-free per diem is supposed to cover. We’d also like to see on-line, accessible, searchable expense filings.
Again: the commission only sets pay. Its recommendations on expenses can be ignored by the legislators, but I think if they ignore solid, good business practices, they run some political risk.