I mentioned yesterday in an item about the state citizens commission’s discussion of pay increases for legislators that the Arkansas Public Law Center was drafting a letter to offer some input to the discussion.
The public law center is a nonprofit group that files public interest lawsuits, including one that curbed, but didn’t eliminate, abuse expense practices by the legislature. It has no more official standing than anyone else, but its lawyers, Bettina Brownstein and John Burnett, have invested a lot of time in the study of legislative expenses, most recently uncovering an old practice of paying per diem to legislators even on days the legislature is in recess and they are not working. Per diem is a tax-free payment under IRS rules because it is viewed as reimbursement for …… going to work.
The board of the group (I’m a member) kicked ideas around and came up with a proposal that Brownstein sent to the commission yesterday. It has some small changes in what I’d outlined earlier. I was happy to see the commission leaning toward even more modest pay increases for legislators than we’ve suggested. But we did couple our higher pay proposal with some strong expense practices. Unfortunately, the commission only sets pay, not expense practices. It may recommend, but the legislature itself sets the rules. But, as one commissioner observed yesterday, abusive expense practices could factor in future years on pay increases.
In any case, for the record, the Law Center’s ideas on legislative pay:
1. Salaries of members of the General Assembly should be increased to $30,000 [They now make about $15,800].
2. Per diem may be paid only for actual attendance at the Capitol for legislative sessions and legislative business. Per diem payments must be claimed by each member and attendance attested to. Payment of per diem at a reduced rate for those members who reside within 50 miles is appropriate.
3. The level of documentation submitted to support claims for reimbursement for such legislative expenses as office-related expenses and should be improved so as to allow real transparency. Documentation should provide a level of detail so as to allow the public to ascertain the amount and nature of the services provided to the legislator and the costs incurred by the legislator for which reimbursement is claimed. Lump-sum billing from third-party entities that do not reveal the amount and nature of services and detailed costs should be prohibited.
4. Payments to immediate family members for legislative services provided to members should be prohibited.
5. Reimbursement for mileage should be no higher than for other state employees.
6. Requests for mileage reimbursement NOT for travel to and from the Capitol for legislative sessions and legislative business should be supported by sufficient documentation to allow the public to ascertain the reason for the request. Documentation should identify the destination and the person or organization with whom the member met.
7. A database should be established that is accessible and searchable online by the general public. The database should be maintained in such a way as to allow the public to readily ascertain the expenses, per diem and mileage paid to each member.