Lawmakers cash in on three-day weekends

February 19, 2011

Lawmakers in Sacramento officially convened for less than half an hour on Friday — just long enough to legally entitle the 80 members of the Assembly and the 40 members of the Senate $568 each. [Union-Tribune]

What happened?  On top of their $95,291 annual salary, lawmakers can collect $142 per day when the legislature is in session. Those daily payments halt if the legislature takes off four or more days.

By convening for a short time on Friday, the legislature kept the Presidents Day holiday as a three-day weekend, meaning they could collect the daily payments while on recess Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Total cost to taxpayers: $70,000.

“It’s abuse,” said Ted Costa, a longtime Capitol watchdog and leader of the group People’s Advocate.

The “per diem” payments are designed to offset the cost of maintaining two households. The expense payments can inflate member salaries by $25,000 to $30,000 a year, and in most cases it’s tax free. Even those who live within 20 miles of the Capitol and do not maintain two households can still collect the money, but they do pay taxes on it.

Cumulatively, taxpayers sent lawmakers about $3.2 million to cover their daily living expenses in 2010, according to legislative payroll records.

The short pre-holiday session was hardly unique. Last month, for the Martin Luther King holiday, lawmakers also adjourned after 20-minute sessions.

By contrast, members of Congress receive $174,000, but no per diem. The National Taxpayers Union, a conservative leaning watchdog, said per diem payments “ have become more like a sweetener for a salary that already exists.”

Legislative leaders in Sacramento defend the brief sessions, noting that on those Fridays work is still being accomplished: bills are introduced, and budget negotiations continue. This time, Assembly and Senate fiscal committees met to consider passing the first draft of a 2011-12 spending plan.

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Yet another reason to do away with the full-time legislature and go back to a part-time legislature, like it used to be. The more they’re in session, the more laws they pass and the more money they cost us.