Exclusive: Lawmakers Cost Taxpayers Millions

The S.C. Legislature is no cheap date for taxpayers.

From Jan. 1, 2008, through this past July 31, state taxpayers shelled out at least $14.8 million to cover salaries and expenses for 202 current or former House and Senate members, The Nerve found in a review of records from each chamber, obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

That works out to an average of more than $73,000 per legislator for the 2.5-year period – far higher than the $10,400 annual base salary commonly cited by lawmakers and listed in annual state budgets.

Looked at another way, taxpayers spent, on average, more than $475,000 per month on all lawmakers.  The 170-member Legislature typically meets in its Columbia chambers Tuesdays through Thursdays from the second Tuesday in January to the first Thursday in June, though lawmakers also can meet officially on other days in and out of session.

The Nerve will chronicle legislative salaries and expenses in a three-part series starting today with this report. Readers each day also can search a database on this site for specifics on individual senators and representatives.

Informed of The  Nerve’s findings last week, Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, who had the lowest total amount of salary and expenses ($51,317) for all lawmakers who claimed expenses during the 2.5-year period, said he plans to introduce a bill when the General Assembly returns to session in January that would require all legislative expenses to be posted online.

“All state and local government agencies should put their expenditures online, and that includes lawmakers,” Rose said. “When people see how their money is being spent, they will recognize how to be more efficient, and they will push back or complain about what they see is wasteful.”

John Crangle, director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, said last week that The Nerve’s findings reinforce his belief that the legislative session needs to be shortened. He cited the Georgia Constitution, which limits that state’s sessions to 40 legislative days.

By comparison, the S.C. Legislature in 2009 and this year met in session an average of 59 working days each year. South Carolina’s typical 21-week annual session is the second longest in the Southeast and the 14th longest in the country, according to recently published research by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Excluding the country’s 10 full-time professional legislatures, the Palmetto State has the longest session in the nation as measured by months, the Policy Council’s research found.

“In the first month or two, there’s just a lot of socializing going on,” Crangle said about South Carolina’s session.  “Normally, legislation is done in the last several weeks of the session.”

HIGHEST-PRICED LAWMAKERS

Total salary and expenses for individual lawmakers in The Nerve’s analysis ranged from a high of $133,529 for the 2.5-year period for Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, to a one-year low of $14,287 for former Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, D-York. About 84 percent of the lawmakers served during or claimed expenses for the 2.5-year period.

Here are the 15 lawmakers with the highest total salary and expenses for the 2.5-year period:

  • Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston – $133,529
  • House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston – $128,406
  • Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee – $109,505
  • House Speaker Pro Tempore Harry Cato, R-Greenville – $105,304
  • Rep. William Sandifer, R-Oconee –  $102,226
  • Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry – $99,892
  • Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley – $99,817
  • Sen. William O’Dell, R-Abbeville – $98,699
  • Sen. Daniel  Verdin, R-Laurens – $98,659
  • Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley – $97,616
  • Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown – $97,567
  • Rep. Vida Miller, D-Georgetown – $97,471
  • Rep. Dan Cooper, R-Anderson –  $97,384
  • Rep. Richard Chalk, R-Beaufort – $96,996
  • Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington – $96,218

The Senate’s records for 2010 that were provided to The Nerve ran through June, while the House amounts included July, which can affect rankings when comparing the chambers.

McConnell and Harrell – arguably the two most powerful lawmakers in the state – each earn an additional $11,000 annually with their respective titles, while Cato is budgeted to receive an additional $3,600 a year. Neither McConnell nor Harrell returned written and phone messages left for them last week by The Nerve.

“If I could serve for free, I probably would, but it costs me to serve in the General Assembly,” said Grooms, president of GTI Inc., a petroleum leasing company, when contacted last week by The Nerve. “That’s part of the politics – you’re expected to be at a lot of functions.”

“I put more than 40,000 miles a year on my car as a result of my service in the Senate,” the Senate Transportation Committee chairman added, “and I get reimbursed a fraction of that.”

The $14.8 million total tab for lawmaker salaries and expenses did not include health insurance and retirement benefits. Over the 2.5-year period, for example, the state paid more than $1.8 million in health insurance premiums for lawmakers, according to S.C. Budget and Control Board records.

As far as state retirement benefits go, as many as 18 senators and a dozen House members who were recorded during the period as having no annual salary might have been receiving retirement benefits while still serving, The Nerve’s analysis found. The state’s longest-serving lawmaker, Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, confirmed last week for The Nerve that he is among that group.

But whether the remaining lawmakers were receiving retirement benefits is unknown. House Clerk Charles Reid and Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett couldn’t provide specifics on that when contacted by The Nerve, referring questions to the S.C. Budget and Control Board. BCB spokesman Mike Sponhour said last week he was prohibited by law from releasing retirement or health insurance information on specific legislators.

Gossett in a written response to The Nerve said the 18 zero-salary senators are “most likely retired,” adding, “I am not aware of any senator who declines the salary.” By law, he said, senators who receive state retirement benefits are not entitled to the annual base $10,400 salary but can continue to receive expense reimbursements.

Besides Land, who is the Senate minority leader, other senators listing zero annual salary include Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

The Nerve reported last month that lawmakers in the state retirement system earn an annual average of $19,605 in gross retirement benefits.  Based on that rate, the state would have paid out nearly $1.2 million in gross benefits for the 2.5-year period, assuming all 30 affected lawmakers were receiving benefits.

EXPENSIVE GOODY BAG

Lawmakers are not bashful in pointing out that their base annual $10,400 salary is lower than in most other states. Of 39 states that provide lawmakers with annual salaries, only Texas and Mississippi have salaries lower than South Carolina’s, according to the most recent data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But what Palmetto State legislators often don’t mention is that besides their base annual salary, they also can receive:

  • In-district expense payments of up to $12,000 annually, even while, as The Nerve reported earlier, state law requires counties to fund local legislative delegation offices;
  • Daily $131 “subsistence” payments for hotels and meals while on official legislative business, whether in or out of session;
  • Per-diem payments of $35 for legislative meetings on non-session days;
  • Mileage reimbursements of at least 44.5 cents per mile for House members and 50 cents per mile for senators, which, as with subsistence payments, are tied to federal rates; and
  • Annual flat postage payments of $500 for House members and $750 for senators; before June 30, 2008, House members also could receive reimbursements for all mail sent outside the official mail room for members.

In addition, senators who chair committees receive an additional annual $650, which is labeled as “interim expenses”; and House members receive $250 a year to buy U.S. and S.C. flags.  The House over the 2.5-year period spent about $22,000 on flags, The Nerve’s analysis found; in a written response to The Nerve, Reid said he didn’t know what size flag is typically purchased.

The following is a breakdown of the major expenditure categories for all lawmakers in The Nerve’s analysis:

  • In-district payments: $5,214,847
  • Base salaries: $4,457,684
  • Subsistence payments: $3,831,041
  • Mileage: $838,909
  • Postage: $323,740

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, told The Nerve last week that there is no reporting mechanism for in-district expenses – the largest expenditure category – to show actual amounts spent by lawmakers.

“It’s just not something that’s tracked,” said Sellers, who, according to The Nerve’s analysis, was among 97 representatives and 36 senators who accepted the full monthly allotments over the 2.5-year period.

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

Of the $14.8 million total tab, $10.9 million, or 74 percent, was spent on the 124-member House, while about $3.9 million, or 26 percent, was for the 46-member Senate, The Nerve’s analysis found.

Comparing expenses between the House and Senate, however, is difficult because each chamber categorizes some items differently. In the House, for example, mileage, per-diem and subsistence expenses for meetings on non-session days are listed in the travel column and not separated out, Reid told The Nerve in a written response.

Whether a representative receives per-diem or subsistence payments on non-session days is up to Harrell, Reid said, noting that the speaker typically has approved mileage only, unless it was a particularly long meeting.

Expenses for lawmakers are not listed as separate line items in the ratified state budgets found on the Legislature’s website; only base salary amounts for lawmakers and the stipends for McConnell, Harrell and Cato are included.

“The budget flexibility provisos allow the House to move money between various line items to cover expenses,” Reid said in a written response to budget questions. “The same flexibility is provided to all agencies. The flexibility provisos were inserted in the annual general appropriations bill to deal with the budget crises.”

Nationwide, expense reimbursements for state lawmakers have “tended to stay stagnant” amid the recession, said Morgan Cullen, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislature’s Denver office, when contacted last week by The Nerve.

The NCSL does not keep totals by state on expense reimbursements to lawmakers, he said.

No states are increasing base salaries for legislators and within the past year, five states – California, Delaware, Florida, Maine and Massachusetts – have reduced lawmaker salaries, Cullen said.

“Times are tough,” he said. “People are watching their budgets, and they’ve got to cut costs wherever they can.”

Investigative reporter Eric K. Ward and research intern Matthew Snider contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org

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This entry was posted in Accountability, The high cost of the SC Lawmakers, Transparency and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Exclusive: Lawmakers Cost Taxpayers Millions

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