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Session cost taxpayers $1,000 per day

November 16, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland taxpayers spent about $1,000 a day to keep Washington County lawmakers in Annapolis for the legislative session.

Lawmakers said it's a fair price to compensate them for living in one of the country's most expensive capital cities for three months of the year.

Members of the Maryland General Assembly, eight of whom represent Washington County, are reimbursed for their lodging, meals and mileage during the session.

Limits on meal reimbursements were increased this year for the first time since 1995, from $30 a day to $39 a day, said George Cutair, administrator of finance and administrative services for the assembly.

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Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, was the only lawmaker who requested the maximum allowance for each day of the session, according to expense reports.

Donoghue said the $39 per diem does not cover his expenses.

"I think people understand we have to be out of town for three months and we have to live," he said.

Most other local lawmakers claimed the per diem on many days they were in Annapolis, the reports show.

Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, routinely did not charge the state for breakfast. That meal was included in his $96 a night room rate at the Sheraton Barcelo, his records show.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, spent the least amount on meals during the session, $1,493.

Nevertheless, he said he often spends more than the allowance for his meals.

The federal government's standard meal reimbursement rate for someone traveling in Annapolis is $44 a day compared to $28 a day in Hagerstown, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.

The cap on housing expenses for state lawmakers also was increased this year, with each lawmaker allowed to claim $96 a day, up from $90 a day, to reflect IRS guidelines for Annapolis lodging.

Lawmakers who stayed in downtown hotels included Donoghue, Hafer, Shank and Weldon.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, rented apartments at a lower cost.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, had the least expensive accommodations. He stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott, outside downtown Annapolis, for $79 a night.

Expense guidelines normally are reviewed and set every four years by the General Assembly Compensation Commission.

In the future, the commission decided, lawmakers' per diem meal reimbursement rate should be tied to the rate that state employees receive when they travel, Cutair said.

Lawmakers said the guidelines leave little room for abuse and make it easy for them to account for their expenses.

"I don't think the system's being abused. I think there's some accountability here," Shank said.

Giving lawmakers a lump sum of money up front, as part of their salaries, is a better way to keep track of expenses, said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

Browning said he believes lawmakers should work year-round and get paid accordingly. That way, there would be fewer potential conflicts of interest.

Every year, lawmakers are asked to take on more responsibilities during the nine months they are not in session, Shank said. There are benefits to having a citizen legislature, where people of different backgrounds bring their own expertise to policy decisions, he said.

In part to reflect lawmakers' increasing responsibilities, the compensation commission recommended raises.

The salary this year is $34,500 and it will increase annually, topping out at $43,500 in 2006.

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