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Memorial Hall, almost deserted and unusually quiet for a legislative session, as the Louisiana Legislature convened for a short time to move bills on the legal calendar and to introduce contingency measures for budget and capital outlay Tuesday March 31.

The State Capitol closed entirely for 49 days, but nobody forgot to pay legislators for living expenses in Baton Rouge.

The hard-working members of House and Senate are defending the practice of receiving the per diem — Latin for each day — payments even as they were spared the costs associated with relocating to Baton Rouge to do their legislating.

“I don’t want to get paid if I’m not working,” state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said. “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.”

The per diem payments, which will total $13,865 per legislator for the 2020 regular 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.

That’s on top of a $16,800 annual salary. Members of the leadership and committee chairman typically earn more, as there are numerous meetings when the Legislature is not in session.

The lawyerly explanation offered by Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, is that the Louisiana Constitution explicitly forbids reducing the pay of legislators, and that the per diem during the session cannot be withheld from members. The Legislature never adjourned sine die — more Latin, for without date to return. That means members are eligible for per diem until sine die.

Latin is a dead language, but legislators typically know politics. The optics, as they say in that language, are pretty terrible.

Some members said they plan to give the money to charity or otherwise make up for the days they were not on duty in Baton Rouge.

In fairness, these were hardly no-show days, in the sense that conscientious legislators — even the many freshmen elected because of a term-limits wave last year — know that calls from constituents are continuous. That’s true, pandemic or no.

As Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, put it, the legislators are in the position of many whose brick-and-mortar businesses are closed but work at home.

Many constituents are suffering far more profoundly that most members of the Legislature, even the many lawyers for whom the courts are closed, or others also affected by recent events.

Constituents are not getting reimbursed for expenses they did not incur. Their elected representatives shouldn’t either.

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