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Not all legislatures paid the same, report shows

Special to the Herald-Guide -   Oct 31, 2013

By John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford

While all Louisiana legislators receive the same base salary, those in leadership positions receive bonuses. Plus, payments for per diems and mileage can help even the lowliest lawmaker land a spot in the top rung alongside the best paid from both chambers.

These are just a few of the findings uncovered from a series of public records requests sought by LaPolitics and filled by the House and Senate in recent weeks.

In total, the state spent $6.1 million last calendar year compensating, in terms of taxable income, the elected members of the Legislature, including $4.3 million doled out by the House and $1.7 million by the Senate. Since 2012 marked the beginning of a new term, a few outgoing lawmakers were paid for short stints, but the lion’s share of the money went to elected members who are still serving in the Legislature.

Every member receives a salary of $16,800, but they also get $6,000 annually through an “unvouchered expense allowance,” which was passed in 1996 as a way for legislators to increase their taxable income without actually increasing their salaries. That gives each member of the Legislature a base income of $22,800.   

The top of the leadership chain in each chamber, however, receives a little more. This bump also puts them atop the pay pyramid, beginning with the budget chairmen. For their roles, Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, and Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, both receive an additional salary hike of around $28,000 for meeting well before session begins and long after it ends crafting spending plans that are always guaranteed to be as controversial as they are necessary.

For wielding the big gavels, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, get much smaller perks, about $14,870 in additional pay. The only other members who see more money through positions are their backups. President Pro Tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, and Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, get bonus pay amounting to roughly $7,500 each.

Every other lawmaker is confined to a base compensation of $22,800, although every member of the Legislature also receives per diems and mileage, which goes toward their total taxable income. The per diem rate is, and last year was, $149. During session, lawmakers get a per diem for each day, amounting to $12,814 for practically every legislator last year. They also get paid mileage for one round trip home per week during session. The further away from Baton Rouge a lawmaker lives, the higher their mileage pay will be.  

Per diems and mileage payments are also given out for interim non-session committee meetings and legislative business, as well as for a basic “travel” category, which must be approved by the president or speaker.  

When all of these various factors are combined, the lawmakers in each chamber with the top five taxable incomes from 2012 are as follows.House:• Fannin: $81,138• Kleckley: $75,192• Leger: $51,706• Rep. Henry Burns, R-Haughton: $51,060• Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport: $51,019Senate:• Donahue: $67,074• Alario: $63,789• Senate Insurance Chairman Blade Morrish, R-Jennings: $58,975• Senate Natural Resources Chairman Gerald Long, R-Winnfield: $54,655• Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville: $54,544At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest paid legislators last year were Sens. Rick Ward, R-Maringouin, $37,175, and Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, $36,660, and Reps. Kenny Havard, $36,448; Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, $36,359; and Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, $36,227.

While these figures represent only taxable income, the state also spent an additional $2.2 million—$1.4 million in the House and more than $820,000 in the Senate—last calendar year reimbursing lawmakers for office expenses and lodging and paying for airfare, rent and event registrations on their behalf.

With the average taxable income of a Louisiana legislator coming in at roughly $41,755, they’re still far below their counterparts in places like Illinois, $67,836; Massachusetts, $60,032; and Ohio, $60,583, according to the latest salary breakdown compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Additionally, a $7,200 annual salary is paid to Texas lawmakers, along with their $150 per diem. Arkansas lawmakers are much closer to Louisiana in base pay it seems, making $15,869 annually with a per diem of $147. The figures are even lower in Mississippi: $10,000 per year and a $123 per diem.

They’re certainly better off than New Mexico, where lawmakers receive no salary at all, though they do get a $154 per diem. In New Hampshire, a two-year term nets legislative members only $200—and nothing more.

The highest annual salaries for lawmakers are where you might expect them: California, $90,526; Michigan, $71,685; New York, $79,500; and Pennsylvania, $83,801.

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