This year’s legislative session may not have convened every day, but lawmakers are receiving the full $1.98 million in per diem payments – even though the State Capitol was closed for 49 days because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Each of the 144 lawmakers receives $161 for each day the Legislature is in session. That’s on top of their $16,800 annual salary.
The per diem payments, which will total $13,865 per legislator for the 2020 Regular Legislative Session, are to reimburse lawmakers for expenses while in Baton Rouge, according to the law. Legislators also receive up to $6,000 annually for unvouchered expenses and some receive mileage for their drive to and from Baton Rouge.
Legislative compensation has always been a controversial issue and lawmakers have taken different tacks on the payments.
“I don’t want to get paid if I’m not working,” state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said Wednesday. “But I took more phone calls when I was away than I was here. I also met here once a week with staff to discuss what we’re going to do with surplus money,”.
Rookie state Rep. Chuck Owen, R-Rosepine, is unsure whether he’ll keep the money. “I kept the money aside. I didn’t know if I had been overpaid.”
State Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe, told The Ouachita Citizen newspaper that he had collected $10,414 in per diem payments and travel outlays during the recess. He donated the money to a University of Louisiana at Monroe scholarship.
Louisiana House gaveled in Monday morning to restart the legislative session that was suspended for more than a month because of the coronavir…
Annual sessions are set in law and during even-numbered years allow 60 days of meetings during an 85-calendar-day period. This year, the session convened on March 9 and must adjourn by 6 p.m. June 1.
Lawmakers worked a week after convening, which coincided with the first time a Louisiana resident tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The House and Senate then suspended the session March 16 and, except for an hour on March 31 to handle some legalities, stayed out of the State Capitol. The session reconvened Monday.
Legislators are being paid for all 85 days and will be paid more if a special session is called, as several legislative leaders have hinted might happen after this session adjourns.
During the missing 49 days lawmakers were paid about $7,889 – or about $1.2 million for the entire body – because the Legislature was considered “in recess,” like what happens on weekends in usual gatherings.
But more to the point, says Senate President Page Cortez, the state Constitution specifically prohibits the reduction of an elected public official’s compensation during the elected term. “To withhold per diem prior to the sine die of the session would be a direct violation of the Constitution and state law,” Cortez, R-Lafayette, said Wednesday.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, was too busy with back-to-back meetings Wednesday to respond to questions about per diem payments, according to his spokesman.
Beyond the legalities, Louisiana pays its legislators far less than other states pay their assemblies, said Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican who as chairwoman of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee is on the Legislative Budgetary Control Council, the joint panel that oversees spending in the House and Senate.
Hewitt lives 90 minutes away in Slidell and must rent a Baton Rouge apartment year-round. “My husband says I spend more money on this job than we make,” said Hewitt.
Making those comparisons between states isn’t easy.
Texas pays its 31 state senators and 150 state representatives a salary of $7,200 a year but tacks on $221 per day in per diem whenever they show up in Austin for session or committee hearings that go on almost year-round.
Arkansas pays $41,394 annually and $149 per diem for some lawmakers, $55 for others, depending on how far they live from Little Rock. Maryland pays legislators $50,330 per year but specifically covers up to $106 per day for lodging and $47 per day for meals, which is but a fraction of the costs in expensive Annapolis.
When the Louisiana Legislature gavels back into session at 9 a.m. Monday, the only issue that lawmakers can come close to turning into law wil…
“We only adjourned for a period of time,” said Port Allen Republican Sen. Rick Ward, taking note of the law. “There was not a day that went by when people were not attending conference calls. I would compare it to somebody whose bricks and mortar office closed but they sent everyone home with laptops and their work continued.”
“I was in Skype calls, video chats, Zoom calls, all day, every day,” said state Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat who lives about six miles from the Capitol, so doesn’t receive mileage. “I had to create a space in my home and I sit in that space all day from 7:30 in the morning until 8 p.m. at night. My husband had to slip me sandwiches.”
Staff writers Tyler Bridges and Will Sentell contributed to this report