The Palmetto Insider

The blog of the South Carolina Policy Council

Want to Cut Legislative Expenses? … Shorten Session

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A new series by The Nerve finds that state legislators – who work three days a week for five months a year – earn about $32,000 annually, once salary, per diem and in-district compensation are accounted for.

To put this figure into perspective, per capita income in South Carolina was $31,799 for 2009.

As today’s story by Rick Brundrett suggests, some lawmakers feel justified in treating per diem reimbursement as part of their salary – meaning they’ll generally claim the maximum $131/day, regardless of whether they actually use it all on mileage and subsistence.

Stated Senator Larry Grooms about his high per diem expenses:

“If I could serve for free, I probably would, but it costs me to serve in the General Assembly. 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 [as chairman of the Transportation Committee], and I get reimbursed a fraction of that.”

According to data provided by The Nerve, Grooms, who represents Berkeley County, has thus far claimed almost $11,000 for mileage and subsistence for 2010.

Similarly, Rep. Joe Neal told The Nerve:

“I have not given it a whole lot of thought, but as I reflect on it, the (legislative) salary here is not what you would call exorbitant. In South Carolina, most of us have families we have to support as well. It is a sacrifice to be here.”

A database created by The Nerve staff shows that Neal, who lives 16 miles outside of Columbia, has thus far collected almost $9,000 for mileage and subsistence for 2010.

The average per diem claimed by legislators was $9,600, which along with a $10,400 salary and a $12,000 in-district expense allowance, adds up to $32,000 in income a year.

I think it should be granted that serving in the General Assembly is somewhat of a burden – a burden that has definite, and sometimes questionable, fringe benefits. The sacrifice entailed by such service is one reason so few South Carolinians can run for office.

Above all, as we point out in our new study on shortening session, very few citizens can afford to take five months a year to serve in the General Assembly. Not even your average teacher, with three summer months off, can do that. Most retirees don’t want to do it either.

But there’s an easy solution to all of this – one that would greatly reduce the burden, for lawmakers and taxpayers alike, of serving in the General Assembly.

Shorten session.

One option, proposed by Senator Mike Rose (SJR 1003), is to switch to a six-month (January to June) biennial, or every-other-year, session.

Another option we recommend is shortening session to 45 days. Currently, the average legislature in the Southeast meets for 47 actual days a year. Why does South Carolina need more (63 days) than that?

If session were capped at 45 days for 2011, the result would look something like this:

  • As required by the constitution, legislators would convene in Columbia on January 11
  • Legislators would have until April 8 to complete their duties
  • Legislators would meet 4 days a week (Tuesday to Friday)
  • As a result, session would end on March 25: one day short of the statutory limit of 45 days

Regardless of the details, the solution is clear: shorten session and reduce costs. Doing so would also reduce the burden of legislative service, making it easier for other South Carolinians to serve as well.

Then again, with incumbency rates the way they are in the S.C. General Assembly, maybe that’s the last thing lawmakers want.

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Written by Jameson Taylor

October 7, 2010 at 11:27 am

Posted in Limited Government

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