ATLANTA -- When it comes to politics, Regina Quick and Ron Stephens are on the same end of the spectrum, but when it comes to claiming expenses from taxpayers, they part ways.
Both are Republican members of the House of Representatives, Quick from Athens and Stephens from Savannah. They often vote alike on major bills.
Regarding expenses, Quick hasn’t claimed any and doesn’t intend to while Stephens’ claims are among the legislature’s top.
“I think fiscal conservatives should lead by example, so I have tried the treat the taxpayer’s money as if it was my own,” she said, adding that she plans to stick to the practice of absorbing legislative expenses throughout her political career which just began in January.
On the other hand, Stephens entered office in 1997 and chairs the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee. Last year, he collected $15,312 in mileage and daily compensation for working on legislative business when the General Assembly wasn’t in session, known as “per diem.” He also received $5,498 in reimbursement for expenses, $5,391 of it for transportation.
Stephens sponsors three times the legislation as the average lawmaker, mostly tax incentives for various industries. That requires many meetings in Atlanta year round and conferences with trade associations.
“The bulk of the things that pass through the Ways and Means Committee are bills I’ve been working on during the year. It’s all things that never end,” he said.
Georgia legislators have two buckets to draw support from besides their $17,342 annual salary and an Atlanta office with a shared secretary: reimbursement and per diem.
The per diem is $173 per day plus mileage, which boosts the figures for those living farthest from Atlanta.
Stephens isn’t alone in racking up per diem charges. Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, collected $13,549 last year and $14,571 so far this year. He chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee last year, which required him to attend meetings in Atlanta of the governor’s commission on higher-education funding.
“I was up there a whole lot last year,” Carter said, adding that the per diem doesn’t cover the $600 daily rate to hire another pharmacist to substitute for him those days.
Carter claimed nearly as much last year as Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, even though their districts are not so far apart. Hill claimed $13,934.
“Comparing to Jack is not always the fairest because a lot of times, he doesn’t even put it down (as an expense),” Carter joked, adding that he personally follows the custom of not claiming expenses while on legislative business in his own district.
Hill figures he put 19,000 miles on his car last year driving in his district without compensation.
Rep. Alex Atwood, R-Brunswick, said he follows the same custom even though dozens of trade associations hold conventions in his district, requiring him to shuttle between several each day during the summer.
“There are things you’re expected to do,” he said. “All of us do it as a matter of course.”
Dealing with the state budget keeps the House and Senate appropriations chairmen busy, both in Atlanta meeting with agency heads, and around the state touring government facilities. The House chairman, Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, claimed $13,631 last year, which included 54 days for the committee and various boards and commissions he served on as part of the position. That’s more than the 40-day legislative session.
“Today, I met here at the farm with two different agencies,” he said Friday. “This is not a day that I will turn in.”
Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chaired House Appropriations before England and acknowledges how demanding the job is, arguing it deserves extra pay like the $400 monthly stipend for each party’s leaders and the $200 for the governor’s floor leaders.
“I understand the struggles Chairman England is going through. I went through them,” Harbin said. “… It’s borderline on full time.”
Committee chairmen have wider latitude to claim per diem than rank-and-file legislators who only get seven days in the House and 15 in the Senate. The four-person Legislative Fiscal Office rejects claims that exceed the limits but doesn’t require formal committee meetings in most cases, generally taking legislators at their word.
When it comes to reimbursement, all legislators can get as much as $7,000 yearly in work-related expenses. Many, like Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, will spend most or all of it on a single newsletter to constituents.
Stephens prefers transportation reimbursement because he said newspaper coverage keeps his constituents informed. Quick said her campaign will pay for her newsletter.
Others will use the money to hire an aide, lease equipment like cell phones or buy meals for constituents and volunteer pages. Some rent office space, usually from themselves or their businesses.
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, claims one-third of the rent for his satellite law office as the expense of a district-legislative office. The firm pays one-third, and his campaign pays a third.
“I asked some of those in leadership what they thought, and I was basically told make a memo to myself justifying the allocation,” he said.
Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta, rents office space from himself at his insurance agency.
“It’s based on what I determined to be the amount of time I spent with clients in the office,” he said, noting most of his legislative work is helping constituents who telephone him.
Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, got reimbursement for what he spent when he rented space in his own upholstery shop, bought a $300 desk for it and hired aides who had his last name and work at the same address as the shop. His fellow Augusta Democrat, Rep. Earnest Smith, spent $4,540 on meals in Augusta, from Huddle House to Chop House, ranging from $3.99 to $71.70. Half of Rep. Barbara Sims’ reimbursement went to a condo the Augusta Republican used during the legislative session.
It’s typical to spend as much as $850 on various special-interest caucuses, like those for women, blacks and rural legislators.
There are few guidelines for reimbursement, according to Legislative Fiscal Officer Robyn McDonald. She rejects anything that is obviously campaign related, but generally her staff is too small to validate claims as long as lawmakers present receipts or canceled checks.
Even aides have to provide receipts to legislators for their pay.
Lawmakers like Rep. Craig Gordon, D-Savannah, who spend their entire allotment on aides, say volunteers aren’t reliable and the shared secretary isn’t always available.
“It’s just hard to keep track of all the constituent calls and organize things on a daily basis,” Gordon said, noting that he usually can only hire a college student or retiree for the available sum.
If legislators received the equivalent of a congressional office budget for the number of constituents they have, members of the Georgia House would get about $70,000 or 10 times their current allotment. Instead, legislators commonly admit to absorbing much of their expenses.
“I’m not complaining,” England said. “We all knew what we got into. I could have saved money by not hiring somebody (to fill in at his store when he was at the Capitol), but there’s a lot of enjoyment in making the state a better place.”