CAPITOL CASH, Part One

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

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

— Part Two: Lawmakers receive varying levels of direct and indirect payments from the state, including money for lodging, airfare, direct mail, rent and more.

Thursday: All original source documents detailing lawmakers’ financial packages as released by the House and Senate will be posted online.

When it comes to how much money members of the state Legislature are paid, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stickier issue to discuss around the Capitol. From a legislative perspective, they’re stuck. Mostly. If lawmakers want a pay raise, they have to introduce legislation and vote yea. And none of them, especially those who wish to continue running for public office, want such an unpopular vote readily available for opponents to use at will.

On the other hand, many feel they are underpaid for a job that’s technically part-time, but occasionally requires full-time work. Stories of the toll have played out in recent decades with bankruptcies in the Senate, broken marriages in the House and failed businesses that were neglected for politics.

Lawmakers could simply quit and pursue wealth in the private sector, of course, and several have over the years. But more stick it out, quietly grumbling that judges, sheriffs, clerks, assessors and other officials are able to come to Baton Rouge, get their own hikes and walk away virtually unscathed.

All the while, the public has never been fully informed about how members of the Louisiana Legislature are actually compensated, how much money they are reimbursed by the state and what is paid for on their behalf.

For example, lawmakers on the higher end of the leadership chain receive sizable bonuses. Mileage payments for those who live outside of the Baton Rouge area greatly help prop up their total salaries, amounting to five-figure sums in just a year in many instances. There’s also a pool of money, known as unvouchered expense allowances, that technically increases lawmakers’ base salaries, but isn’t calculated as part of that specific tally.

According to public records requests submitted by LaPolitics over the past six weeks and filled by the House and Senate, there are several other layers to the formula. But in all, the state directly and indirectly underwrote more than $8.3 million in payments to and for lawmakers in 2012.

In terms of taxable income alone, the state spent $6.1 million last year compensating the elected members of the Legislature, including $4.3 million doled out by the House and $1.7 million by the Senate. Since 2012 marked the beginning of a new term, a few outgoing lawmakers were paid for short stints, but the lion’s share of the money went to elected members who are still serving in the Legislature.

Every member receives a salary of $16,800, but they also get $6,000 annually through an “unvouchered expense allowance,” which was passed in 1996 as a way for legislators to increase their taxable income without actually increasing their salaries. That gives each member of the Legislature a base taxable income of $22,800.

The top of the leadership chain in each chamber, however, receives a little more. This bump also puts them atop the pay pyramid, beginning with the budget chairmen. For their roles, Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, and Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, both receive an additional salary hike of around $28,000 for meeting well before session begins and long after it ends. They’re responsible for crafting annual spending plans that are always guaranteed to be as controversial as they are necessary.

“I’m probably the cheapest CEO in the state,” Fannin said. “I don’t waste my time or the taxpayers’ either.”

For wielding the big gavels, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, get much smaller perks, roughly $14,870 in additional pay. The only other members who see more money through leadership positions are their backups. President Pro Tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, and Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, get bonus pay amounting to about $7,500 each.

Every other lawmaker is confined to a base compensation of $22,800, although every member of the Legislature also receives per diems and mileage, which goes toward their total taxable income. The per diem rate is, and last year was, $149. During session, lawmakers get a per diem for each day whether they meet or not, amounting to $12,814 for practically every legislator last year.

They also get paid mileage for one round trip home per week during session. The further away from Baton Rouge a lawmaker lives, the higher their mileage pay will be. The rate received for 2012 was 55.5 cents per mile.

Per diems and mileage payments are also given out for interim non-session committee meetings and official legislative business, as well as for a basic “travel” category, which must be approved by the president or speaker.

When all of these various factors are combined, the sitting lawmakers in each chamber with the top 10 taxable incomes from 2012 were:

House

— Fannin: $81,138

— Kleckley: $75,192

— Leger: $51,706

— Rep. Henry Burns, R-Haughton: $51,060

— Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport: $51,019

— Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City: $50,727

— Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport: $50,227

— Rep. Frank Howard, R-Many: $45,077

— Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington: $44,968

— Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemine: $44,312

Senate 

— Donahue: $67,074

— Alario: $63,789

— Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Lake Charles: $58,975

— Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield: $54,655

— Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville: $54,544

— Broome: $50,789

— Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi: $49,299

— Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton: $48,772

— Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport: $48,759

— Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia: $48,615

At the other end of the spectrum, the 10 lowest paid sitting legislators last year were:

House

— Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales: $36,709

— Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Livingston: $36,537

— Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson: $36,448

— Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge: $36,359

— Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge: $36,227

Senate

— Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie: $38,284

— Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie: $38,206

— Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan: $37,948

— Sen. Rick Ward, R-Maringouin: $37,175

— Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales: $36,660

As for per diems, the Senate spent $630,717 last year, Morrish taking the most, or $22,797. Morrish also held the Senate’s top spot for mileage payments, including related lodging, claiming $13,378 of the total $181,936 paid in the upper chamber in 2012. Together, the categories produced more than $36,000 worth of checks for Morrish last year.

Even though Morrish, a resident of Lake Charles, doesn’t have to drive as far as other lawmakers to get to Baton Rouge, he said he does so with more frequency. Through his chairmanship of the Senate Insurance Committee, he’s a member of other panels like the Louisiana Citizens Board, Property Insurance Association and National Conference of Insurance Legislators. Plus, he serves on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which gathered for several meetings last year as the Bayou Corne sinkhole incident came to light.

“I also spend a lot of time with my appointment to the (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority). They meet all over the state in places like Empire and Lafitte. I’ve been extremely fortunate in that my employers allow me to do this,” said Morrish, office manager for Lake Charles Pilots.

The House shelled out $1.5 million in per diems last year, with Kleckley’s $27,267 taking the top spot. Of the $314,650 paid in travel by the lower chamber in 2012, Fannin had the most, or $12,458.

With the average taxable income of a Louisiana legislator coming in at roughly $41,755, they’re still far below their counterparts in places like Illinois, $67,836; Massachusetts, $60,032; and Ohio, $60,583, according to the latest salary breakdown compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Additionally, a $7,200 annual salary is paid to Texas lawmakers, along with their $150 per diem. Arkansas lawmakers are much closer to Louisiana in base pay it seems, making $15,869 annually with a per diem of $147. The figures are even lower in Mississippi: $10,000 per year and a $123 per diem.

They’re certainly better off than New Mexico, where lawmakers receive no salary at all, though they do get a $154 per diem. In New Hampshire, a two-year term nets legislative members only $200—and nothing more.

The highest annual salaries for lawmakers are where you might expect them: California, $90,526; Michigan, $71,685; New York, $79,500; and Pennsylvania, $83,801.

While many lawmakers aren’t eager to talk about these figures, some believe it’s worth bringing them to light, as it could convert critics into sympathizers. Fannin, who has the highest taxable compensation in the Legislature, said he’s all for a thorough review. “I think it’s good for people to know,” he said. “Some people think I make a whole lot more.”

TOMORROW: A closer look at the money reimbursed to and paid on behalf of lawmakers, and how it complements their legislative packages. Who gets the most from all categories? Who pays the highest rental rates? Who travels the most? Who returns the greatest amount of unused money to the state? Plus more. Including interviews with  Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma; Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge; House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles; and Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

ALSO WORTH READING:

Capitol Cash, Part two

— MAGINNIS: Local Lawsuits More to Jindal’s Liking

— How McAllister Beat Riser

— Political Takeaways

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