According to a recent Atlanta newspaper story on travel and expense claims from state lawmakers for times this year when the Legislature was not in session, legislators billed the state’s taxpayers for more than $1.3 million from Jan. 1 to Dec. 8.
Averaged among the 236 members of the Georgia General Assembly, that translates to a little more than $5,500 per legislator. Incorporating the $173 legislative per diem — with mileage expenses allowed on top of that — into this mathematical exercise, the $1.3 million translates into all lawmakers spending the rough equivalent of one month either eating or lodging away from home outside this year’s regular session and a special session on legislative reapportionment.
The Atlanta story goes on to note, though, that six lawmakers — five Republicans and a Democrat — all claimed more than $15,000 in per diem expenses, roughly equivalent to nearly 90 days each of work outside the legislative session.
In fairness, either scenario seems plausible, particularly given the fact that the six lawmakers claiming the greatest per diem come from the ranks of the legislature’s leadership.
Also in fairness, $173 is hardly a princely per diem, particularly for lawmakers who have to find lodging and meals in any of the state’s larger cities.
And, while it’s not necessarily the most compelling argument, it must be remembered that Georgia’s part-time lawmakers are taking time away from their work to handle legislative responsibilities.
Also, there are some limits placed on lawmakers. According to the Atlanta newspaper, senators are allowed to claim 15 days of per diem without prior approval of a committee chairman, and representatives are allowed to claim seven days without prior approval.
What is worthy of concern here, though, is that lawmakers aren’t required to submit receipts or mileage statements when billing taxpayers for their expenses — and one of their leaders, House Speaker Mark Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), seems OK with that.
Ralston told the newspaper that there is sufficient transparency with per diem claims because the days and amounts reported by lawmakers are available to the public.
Ralston made matters worse by further suggesting that “constituents might expect some degree of discretion ... if they’re meeting with a member about an issue they don’t want to be broadcast.”
Mr. Speaker, whenever lawmakers are spending taxpayer money, the only acceptable disclosure is full disclosure. Taxpayers have a right to know when, where, by whom and with whom their money is being spent. Period.