The total spent on Arkansas lawmakers for per diem, mileage and expense reimbursements dropped from 2015 to 2017, while the total spent on their salaries increased between the two years.
The Legislature met in regular session in those two years, and in that time, lawmakers stopped being eligible for some office-related expenses but did receive pay increases.
Total per diem, mileage and other expense reimbursements dipped from $3.18 million in 2015 to $2.82 million in 2017. The total spent on salaries increased from $4.64 million in 2015 to $5.37 million in 2017, according to state Auditor Andrea Lea's office.
Combined salary and expense payments to lawmakers increased from $7.82 million in 2015 to $8.18 million, according to figures compiled by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, based on records from Arkansas Legislative Audit, the Bureau of Legislative Research, the state House of Representatives, the state Senate and Lea's office.
In comparison, the combined salary and expense payments totaled $7.2 million in 2011 and $6.9 million in 2013.
Last year was the first full year with a regular session in which lawmakers were no longer eligible for up to $14,400 a year in certain office-related expenses, according to state records.
The Republican-controlled Legislature enacted laws signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March 2015 that axed their eligibility for those expenses in exchange for a pay raise granted by a citizens commission.
But other expenses inched up from 2015 to 2017, such as per diem and mileage payments.
The 86-day regular session in 2017 was four days longer than the 82-day regular session in 2015. There were three-day special sessions both years.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said the 3-year-old system to compensate lawmakers for salaries and expenses is "working out really good.
"Our expense rate has been down. It is an easier accounting system for everybody as well," he said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he's not talked to any legislative candidate who said he's running because of the increased pay.
But, he said, "I would think it would open the door to more people to participate in the process."
The chairmen of the state Democratic and Republican parties also said potential candidates don't bring up legislators' salaries when they discuss running.
That's because potential candidates "usually have a public service desire," said state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb, a former state senator from Benton.
In addition, most potential candidates focus on whether they can balance the time away from full-time jobs to serve in the Legislature, said state Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray, a state representative from Augusta.
The Independent Citizens Commission -- created by Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution -- first boosted the salaries of representatives and senators from $15,869 a year to $39,500, effective March 29, 2015. The change included raising the salaries of the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore from $17,771 a year to $45,000.
The next raise was effective July 7, 2017, after the commission increased legislative pay by 2 percent, to $40,188 a year. Pay for the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore rose to $45,900.
The commission scheduled its first meeting this year for 9 a.m. April 24 at the state Capitol.
Amendment 94, approved by voters in November 2014, also increased the number of years that lawmakers can serve in the House, Senate or in both chambers; barred lawmakers from accepting certain gifts, such as meals in one-on-one meetings with lobbyists; and prohibited direct corporate and union contributions to candidates.
The highest expense reimbursements usually went to lawmakers who attended the most meetings between sessions, lived the farthest from Little Rock or attended the most out-of-state conferences.
Gillam, the speaker, collected the largest total at $42,144, beyond his salary.
Gillam said he spent about three-fourths of his work time on legislative business and travel last year. The rest of the time he worked on his family's berry farm, event center and company that collects royalties on natural gas mineral rights in the Fayetteville Shale. His wife is a student events coordinator at Arkansas State University, Beebe.
He said the financial bottom line for most state lawmakers "is very similar" under the state's 3-year-old compensation system, with larger salaries and fewer expense reimbursements, although some lawmakers have come out ahead.
Last year, the state paid $7,108 of the tab for Gillam to attend eight out-of-state conferences, according to House records.
These conferences included the National Conference of State Legislatures' leadership conference May 31-June 2 in Gettysburg, Pa.; the organization's legislative leaders symposium June 7-9 in Washington, D.C.; the organization's conference Aug. 5-6 in Boston; and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation national speakers' conference Sept. 6-9 in Columbus, Ohio.
The other conferences were the foundation's U.S./China cooperation forum Sept. 22-30 in China; the National Conference of State Legislatures' symposium for legislative leaders Oct. 17-22 in Germany; the foundation's technology summit Oct. 26-28 in Los Angeles; and the national conference's House leadership institute Nov. 13-15 in Gettysburg, according to House records.
The National Conference of State Legislatures and State Legislative Leaders Foundation paid more than $20,000 to help finance the cost of seven of these trips, according to Gillam's 2017 personal finance disclosure report.
Gillam said the conference in China was "an amazing opportunity" that focused on how to use river navigation to increase trade.
"It was very beneficial for Arkansas to have a presence there" to make contacts with corporations there, he said.
He said he and House Speaker Pro Tempore Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, attended the conference in Munich, Germany, and "we definitely had some conversations with some very big corporations, Siemens and BMW."
Besides Gillam and Eubanks, five other House leaders collected more than $35,000 each in expense payments last year:
• Legislative Council Co-Chairman Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville.
• House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Joe Jett, R-Success.
• House Management Committee Chairman DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio.
• Former Legislative Council Co-Chairman David Branscum, R-Marshall, who resigned from the House in November to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development director in the state.
Gillam and 14 other representatives attended the House leadership institute in Gettysburg in November with the National Conference of State Legislatures covering most of the cost, said House spokesman Cecillea Pond-Mayo.
The House paid more than $10,000 toward the cost, according to House records.
The others were Reps. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan; Sarah Capp, R-Ozark; Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana; Andy Davis, R-Little Rock; Les Eaves, R-Searcy; Lanny Fite, R-Benton; Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne; Lane Jean, R-Magnolia; Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado; and Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock; as well as Dotson, Eubanks, Jett and Vaught.
Most of them reported that the National Conference of State Legislatures paid $3,200 each for their costs.
Dotson said, "The legislative trip that the speaker took us to Gettysburg last year, that was probably one of the most impactful [conferences] as far as understanding leadership and how to be a leader in a legislative body."
He said he learned how leadership affected the Battle of Gettysburg and understood the general perspectives at various points in the battlefield.
Dotson said he "actually walked the battlefield, and it really gives you a grasp of what decision I can possibly make in this scenario if I'm faced with this enemy and trying to defend or take this hill.
"It's just overwhelming to think about actually being in these situations and trying to make some of those decisions that are literally life and death," Dotson said.
"I'm not going to face life-and-death situations by leading people into battle anyway," he said as far as serving as a legislator. "But from the standpoint of how do you lead people, responding to their concerns [and] their needs, address those concerns [and] their needs, and then to make a plan and move forward to try to accomplish the goal."
Among senators last year, first-term Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, collected the largest amount of per diem, mileage and expense reimbursements at $35,979.
Garner said last week that he is a full-time state senator and he doesn't have another job.
"I worked for [U.S. Sen.] Tom Cotton before I got elected and, after I got elected, I couldn't work for him no more. I had some opportunities to take some other jobs, but nothing really appealed to me to a level this did and, when the people voted for me, I made a commitment to them that I would be in Little Rock to fight for them as much as possible," he said.
In November 2016, Garner ousted state Sen. Bobbie Pierce, D-Sheridan.
"When I was in the military as a private, I made $15,000 a year, so compared to that I'm actually doing OK," Garner said regarding his compensation as a state lawmaker.
Between his legislative salary and per diem and mileage expenses and his wife working full time as a dental hygienist, "we're comfortable," Garner said. "But we're not going to be able to go out there and spend money on everything."
At state expense, Garner attended the National Conference of State Legislatures' legislative summit in Boston on Aug. 4-9, with the state picking up $2,229 of the tab and the conference covering the other $1,000; and the Southern Legislative Conference's annual conference July 28-Aug. 2 in Biloxi, Miss., with the state paying $2,117, according to state records.
He said he attended the conferences to build his network of legislators from other states and hear how other states have solved their problems.
The per diem paid to lawmakers who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol was $153 per day from Jan. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2017, before it increased to the current rate of $155 on Oct. 1, 2017, said Sherri Stacks, the House's chief clerk and fiscal officer.
The reduced per diem paid to lawmakers who live within 50 miles of the Capitol was $59 last year and remains at that level, she said.
Lawmakers were paid a mileage rate of 53.5 cents per mile last year, and the rate increased to 54.5 cents per mile on Jan. 1, 2018, Stacks said.
Lawmakers usually have more expenses in odd-numbered regular session years. Generally, the longer the session, the higher the costs.
Expense payments in regular session years totaled $3.9 million in 2005, $4.7 million in 2007, $5.4 million in 2009, $5.09 million in 2011, $4.77 million in 2013, $3.18 million in 2015 and $2.82 million in 2017.
Expense payments totaled $3.6 million in 2006, rose to $4.4 million in 2008 and to $4.8 million in 2010 before dropping to $3.8 million in 2012. They increased to $4.02 million in 2014 and then dropped to $2.29 million in 2016.
In 2010, the Legislature started meeting in fiscal sessions in even-numbered years after voters approved a constitutional amendment to require fiscal sessions every other year.
SundayMonday on 02/25/2018
Print Headline: Expenses outlay to legislators $2.82M in '17