CAPITOL CASH, Part Two

Lawmakers receive varying levels of indirect payments from the state.

The second installment in a three-day series on LaPolitics.com

— Part One: Bonuses, per diems, mileage payments and a special allowance all feed into lawmakers’ taxable incomes.

— Tomorrow: Original source documents detailing lawmakers’ financial packages as released by the House and Senate will be posted online.

Lawmakers haven’t tried to boost their own pay since 2008, when Gov. Bobby Jindal, fresh off his historic election, initially agreed to a plan that would have increased their base salary from $16,800 to $37,500 a year. This was despite his promise during the preceding election cycle not to support legislative pay raises.

Radio show hosts like Moon Griffon and bloggers like Hammond attorney C.B. Forgotston reminded Jindal of his promise. They accused lawmakers of being greedy, pointing out that a few of them didn’t have full-time jobs outside the public sector and that some were even pulling down local and state pensions as well. They whipped their audiences into a frenzy and recall efforts were launched against the legislative sponsors.

Jindal, reading the political tea leaves, broke free from his vow to lawmakers and delivered a veto that mirrored his earlier campaign promise. Since then, only whispers have persisted inside the rails, with many holding out hope that the governor might get behind the effort once again in his final years—and stay there.

At the time, former House Speaker Jim Tucker, a Republican from Terrytown, said the “goal was to assure that citizens from all walks of life could afford public service.” A base salary of $16,800—it’s actually $22,800 when an unvouchered expense allowance of $6,000 is included—just wasn’t enough, he suggested. “The Louisiana state constitution currently requires that the Legislature set its own pay and this should be changed,” Tucker said.

But it hasn’t. Neither have the other sources of income lawmakers enjoy, including payments for mileage and attending meetings. When cobbled together, the average taxable income of a Louisiana legislator in 2012 was $41,755, based on all payments made by the House and Senate, which includes small paychecks to outgoing lawmakers who served only a few days last calendar year.

Many, however, earned well above the average taxable compensation level. Nine sitting lawmakers had incomes between $50,000 and $59,000; two made greater than $60,000; one received more than $70,000; and another more than $80,000.

According to public records requests submitted by LaPolitics over the past six weeks and filled by the House and Senate, the state spent $6.1 million last year compensating the elected members of the Legislature. The figure is an aggregate of all taxable compensation, gleaned from salaries, expense allowances, per diems and mileage checks.

But there are several other layers that should be considered, like reimbursements and payments for rent, office expenses, airfare, lodging, conference registrations and supplemental allowances. When those are accounted for, the state directly and indirectly underwrote an additional $2.2 million in payments in 2012—for a grand total of $8.3 million.

When all of the above factors—taxable compensation, reimbursements and other payments—are combined, there were five lawmakers who had packages in excess of $80,000 in 2012 and two that surpassed $90,000 each.

The $2.2 million in payments do not include what is paid to legislators’ aides. The House and Senate consider those positions to be in the employ of the Legislature, not as perks connected to each legislator’s financial package. Nor does the figure include health care and retirement benefits.

Big Spenders

Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville, had the most lucrative package in the Legislature last year at $92,598, which amounts to $54,544 in compensation and $38,054 in reimbursements and other payments. But it’s the latter that really adds up for him. He leads the Senate in reimbursements and chalked up about $8,780 in lodging (he was reimbursed for roughly $3,500 while the rest he was compensated for as per diem-related travel) and more than $3,400 in airfare. He also had more than $1,200 in conference and event registrations last year.

The only other person with a combined package exceeding $90,000 was House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, whose overall tally was $92,361 for 2012 ($75,192 in compensation plus $17,169 in reimbursements and other payments).

While Smith did not return a call seeking comment, Kleckley defended his figure as fair. "I consider myself the CEO of a mid-sized corporation. I oversee over 400 employees, between staff, members and administration, and not just in session,” the speaker said. “Eighty percent of my time is spent on legislative affairs."

Another five lawmakers had total packages that exceed $80,000, including:

— House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro: $89,214 ($8,076 in reimbursements and other payments and $81,138 in compensation)

— Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego: $88,619 ($24,830 in reimbursements and other payments and $63,789 in compensation)

— Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Lake Charles: $83,858 ($24,883 in reimbursements and other payments and $58,975 in compensation)

— Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield: $82,365 ($27,710 in reimbursements and other payments and $54,655 in compensation)

— Senate Finance Chair Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville: $80,189 ($13,115 in reimbursements and other payments and $67,074 in compensation)

Special Allowances

While Smith held the top spot in the Senate for reimbursements and other payments, the lower chamber’s leader was Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, whose total was $25,055 in 2012. Most of it, or $18,205, was spent through his supplemental allowance on direct mail.

“Each and every year I have been in the Legislature, I have participated by sending out pre-session mailers that include a survey so constituents can weigh in on what might be hot button issues in the session and express how they feel about it,” Leger said. “I also do a post-session mailer with a recap of the session. We submit those to staff and the clerk of the House has to ensure they have the right kind of information.”

Each lawmaker gets a supplemental allowance of $2,000 per month, of which $500 goes toward office expenses. The money helps them run their districts, pay phone bills, buy office supplies, oversee mass mailers and satisfy other needs. All expenses must be vouchered and are reviewed by the House clerk and Senate secretary.

Most lawmakers do not spend their entire supplemental allowance in a calendar year, which results in money being returned and, in some cases, rolled over into the next year. Overall, members of the House and Senate returned to the state more than $1.2 million in unused money from their allowances last year.

Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco returned the most money in the House, and entire Legislature: nearly $21,000. In the upper chamber, Donahue led the way with roughly $17,000 unspent.

Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, said he makes a point to return money every year. In 2012, he kicked back about $19,000, the second highest amount in the Legislature. "I'm fortunate to have outside income," Dove said. “I use a lot of my own money. And most of what I make as a legislator I donate.”

Still, Dove said his personal career has taken hits as he has focused more time on public service. "I'm not spending as much time promoting my own business,” he added. “I'm not opening up new businesses as fast as I used to."

On the Road, In the Office

The Legislature also pays the rent on lawmakers’ offices and the variations in amounts are vast.

Whereas Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, had an office allowance of only $1,652 last year, Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, was allotted $16,800 (coincidentally the same amount as lawmakers’ base salary). Of that sum, he said about $15,600 went toward rent, more than any other legislator, according to the records released by the House and Senate. The difference was spent on office expenses.

It was a big jump for him. From 2009 to 2011 he said he operated his district office out of his law office, so there was no rental payments at all during those years. Right now his district and law offices are located next to each other in the same complex. "I rented out this office when it became available because, with my Senate papers scattered everywhere, no one was sure if they were visiting me in my capacity as a lawyer or senator," he said.

Claitor said he will soon start the process of making his Capitol office his district office in an effort to return to a zero figure again.

In the House, Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, had the lowest rent of any sitting member in 2012, about $1,800, while Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, had the most, or $15,420.

"Really? I'm surprised," Foil said. “Urban areas just have higher rent. If I were way out there (in rural areas), it would be less. It's more efficient for me to have my office in the same building as my law office. I can just walk across the hall. And it's downtown, so it's close to the Capitol."

Other categories that are reimbursed to lawmakers or paid on their behalf, along with the legislator from each chamber who had the highest amount in 2012, are as follows:

Airfare

— The House paid $23,393 for airfare tickets last year, with Kleckley receiving $2,162

— The Senate spent $20,010, with Smith receiving $3,417

Subsistence/Lodging (Not per diem-related)

— The Senate spent $25,140 on lodging in 2012, with Smith receiving $3,498

— The House spent $41,448, with Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, receiving $4,141  

Event and Conference Registrations

— The Senate spent $14,170 on event and conference registrations last year, with Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, receiving $1,600

— The House spent $13,353, with Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, receiving $1,715

When you take a total aggregate of reimbursements, expenses, taxable compensation and other payments for members of the Legislature in 2012, the overall financial package per lawmaker increases by only $3,586 for an average of $45,341. (The average taxable income of a Louisiana legislator comes in at roughly $41,755.)

It doesn’t help move lawmakers up or down the scale much in terms of national comparisons, but the extra money does benefit a few who find ways to spend more than their counterparts in the Louisiana Legislature.

As for the lawmakers at the bottom of the financial rungs, and even those at the top who feel they are underpaid, Kleckley said they should still consider it a fair system. After all, public service isn’t a field one gets into they you have champagne wishes and caviar dreams. “When we sign up we know what the pay is,” Kleckley said, “we know what we're getting into.”

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