July 22, 2014

Senators vote to double their allowance

SC Senate (File)

SC Senate (File)

South Carolina legislators would double the amount of the allowance they receive to cover their office expenses under the budget that passed the Senate this week.

The proviso would allow lawmakers to be reimbursed for up to $2,000 each month for in-district expenses related to their job, such as office costs or phone bills. That would be an increase from the current $1,000. The budget now goes back to the House of Representatives.

The increase passed in a contested 25-20 vote after about two hours of debate Wednesday. Supporters say the increase is needed, as legislators haven’t raised their in-district expense limit since 1995. “There is an expense in serving,” said State Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon. “And that expense has increased, even in the short time that I’ve been here. Mainly because of increases in the gas price.” Johnson was first elected to the Statehouse in 2011.

The raise was pushed by Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Leatherman noted that $1,000 worth of gas in 1995 would cost nearly $3,000 today with inflation.

Leatherman’s first attempt to increase the reimbursement failed on Tuesday, when senators instead voted to give the nearly $2 million total increase to a fund for local governments. However, State Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, tried again and was successful the second time. The vote was not entirely along party lines. Republicans were split 18-10 against the increase, but Sens. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, were the only Democratic “no” votes.

The late amendment angered State Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, who questioned why senators increased their own pay at a time when education and local governments were not being fully funded under state law. “We are making a decision that this money is better spent on us, for our expenses,” he said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote.

But Cleary said the comparatively low pay for the job’s pressures and time often mean that only candidates who are already financially well-off can serve. “I’m only here because I did well in my profession,” Cleary, who is a dentist, said after introducing his amendment. “This shouldn’t be a gentleman’s club. It should be for hardworking people. And it’s a sacrifice for them.”

State legislators receive a $10,400 per-year salary as part of their job. But the $12,000 for in-district expenses per year is also not the limit they can be reimbursed. Legislators also receive up to $131 per day in “subsistence” payments for lodging and meals, up to 50 cents per mile for travel, and a $35 per-diem for legislative meetings they attend when the Statehouse is not in session.

Legislators also do not have to report how they spend their $12,000 in expenses, but report it as income for tax purposes. Some members either do not use the option or don’t reach the $12,000 maximum. Under the proposal passed Wednesday, those members who go above $1,000 per month would be posted on a public list along with the additional amount they request. There is still no requirement that they itemize their costs, however.

It remains a long shot that senators will get their increase. The House kept reimbursements the same in their budget proposal, and Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to veto the raise if it reaches her desk. The 25-20 difference would not be enough to override such a veto.