The Big Swill: Lots to eat. And its sounds like per diem abuse to continue | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Big Swill: Lots to eat. And its sounds like per diem abuse to continue

Posted By on Tue, Jan 27, 2015 at 7:19 AM

Plenty of opportunities for legislators to grab free meals and drinks today, despite Amendment 94's ban of gifts to legislators.

LUNCH: 11:30 a.m. - 1 p.m., Association of Arkansas Counties Building, Arkansas Community Colleges.

LUNCH: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Capitol Square Apartments, #13, Arkansas Health Care Association. This is the nursing home lobby.

Question: The entire 135-member legislature has been invited to an apartment for lunch with the nursing home lobby? Or is this really a more tailored affair. The lobbies are declaring meals and cocktail hours as "events" so as to claim a dubious exception from the gift ban in Amendment 94.

RECEPTION: 5-7 p.m., Capital Hotel, El Dorado Chamber of Commerce

RECEPTION: 5:30-7 p.m., Capitol Hill Building, Arkansas State Employees Association.

And while on the subject of legislative pay and perks:

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning reported that a working majority of the independent citizens commission working on pay rates for legislators and other politicians seems to have formed around the idea of raising legislative pay, currently in the $15,000 range, to $25,000. But, after pleas from House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang the majority seems to have backed away from recommending an end to abusive per diem practices. The legislature has been drawing per diem — nominally an expense payment for days worked — every day of a legislative session, including weekends. After the Arkansas Public Law Center raised a question about the practice, the chambers have now gone to a system of paying five days of per diem each week, to cover only weekdays but give up weekend payments. Many weeks, of course, legislators don't go to the Capitol five days. Leaders argued that legislators work on those off days. Some legislators, I hope they said.

The Commission sets pay but may only make recommendations on expenses. If it allows per diem abuse to continue — Gillam's claim that it was vital to rural legislators left me scratching my head — all the more reason to make some strong and unambiguous recommendations on other expense practices. They should be paid only for specific, documented expenses and an end should come to pay supplements thinly disguised as professional service contracts for legislative assistance with spouses.

Bettina Brownstein, attorney for the Arkansas Public Law Center, outlined some sensible rules here.

Last week, legislators worked, at best, three light days for 5 days of per diem, which are non-taxable under IRS rules because they are viewed as expense reimbursements. What expenses?

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