The Palmetto Insider

The blog of the South Carolina Policy Council

Cut the Per Diem for South Carolina Legislators

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Last Week the Policy Council unveiled three studies, all aimed at one goal – reforming government in South Carolina. One of the new policy reports looks at the idea of shortening session as a means of lowering spending and mitigating the culture of political careerism that has taken hold in Columbia.

Although the National Conference of State Legislatures formally classifies South Carolina’s General Assembly as “part-time,” our legislative session is five months long. We are tied with Tennessee as having the longest session in the Southeast and one of the longest in the country as well. This long session bars most ordinary citizens from even thinking about running for legislative office.

The Policy Council report recommends scaling back session to no more than 45 legislative days—down from the 2009-2010 average of 63 legislative days a year.

Another negative consequence of South Carolina’s lengthy session is cost. Legislative staffing costs, per diem reimbursements, even electricity to run the place—all of these things cost taxpayers money.

Here, we want to look more closely at per diem rates for legislators. South Carolina legislators receive an annual salary of $10,400. According to a comparison of legislative salaries, this is on the lower end. (Then again, per capita income in South Carolina is among the lowest in the country, too.) In addition to salary, legislators receive per diem reimbursement for mileage, lodging and food. Not to mention $1,000 per/month in-district compensation; and health and retirement benefits.

But back to per diem. High per diem rates actually serve as an incentive for a long session. Think about it. Legislators receive $131/day for each “workday” or legislative day. The more legislative days, the more money they collect. If $131 doesn’t seem like a lot of money, consider this: It’s 7 percent higher than the average daily wage for most people in South Carolina. (Based on per capita income of $31,799 for 2009: $16.38 for an 8-hour day vs. $15.29 per hour.)

And, compared to other states, South Carolina’s per diem rate is on the high end. Five states offer no per diem. Seven states are under $100 per day. Twelve more are between $100-$131. South Carolina is the 11th smallest state in the country by geographic size. But it has higher per diem rates than Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Kansas – all states in the top 20 in terms of size.

Per diem is supposed to help offset costs for mileage and food. But Columbia is in the center of the state – making it easy to get to from almost everywhere else. No more than a 3-hour drive—and for many legislators, much less.

Which begs the question – why is per diem so high in South Carolina? Couldn’t legislators get by on less? Doing some back-of-the-napkin math …

 • Current per diem costs are about: 170 legislators x $131 x 63 legislative days: $1,403,010

• Cutting per diem to $100 per day would save taxpayers $332,010.

• Cutting per diem to $100 a day – and shortening session to 45 legislative days – would cut costs almost in half, saving $638,010 a year.

True, cutting per diem alone will not solve the current spending crisis. But these are the types of tough decisions our legislators refuse to make when trying to trim the budget. The General Assembly has a history of ignoring common sense fixes like this – and instead promoting temporary, across-the board cuts that do nothing in the long term to reduce to the size of government. Starting with their own wallets would send a message to the rest of the state: we’re going to start being smarter with taxpayer dollars.


Written by Geoff Pallay

August 30, 2010 at 9:28 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] week, the Palmetto Insider followed up by pointing out that per diem compensation in South Carolina is on the higher end compared to other state legislatures. The additional estimated $8,200 per diem per legislator is almost equal to each legislator’s […]

  2. […] 29, 2010 1:35 pm A few weeks ago, we compared South Carolina’s per diem payments for legislators and found that South Carolina is on the high end. If legislators cut the […]

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