NASHVILLE (AP) - House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry received $31,967 in "per diem" payments last year, more than any other state lawmaker, according to a review of 2007 legislative expense payments.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that 22 legislators received more in per diem than the base salary for a lawmaker, which is $18,123.
Following DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat, were House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, with $30,500 and Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, who received $28,572.
Critics say the system should be changed so that only actual, documented expenses are paid with taxpayer dollars rather than automatic payments based on a formula that is usually adjusted annually - up from $153 to $161 effective Oct. 1.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, is proposing legislation that would increase the amount to $201.25. The House version is scheduled for a subcommittee next week, and the companion bill has remained in a Senate committee since January.
Dick Williams of Common Cause, a group that advocates for stronger ethics and open government laws, said some per diem payments to legislators "kind of raises your eyebrows" and that payment for actual expenses "might be fairer to everybody."
"On the other hand, their salary is kind of low and if they are doing extra work, they may deserve something for it," he said.
There is no limit in either the House or Senate on per diem payments. Most of them are made for meetings in Nashville, and all legislators are entitled to daily payments while the Legislature is in session.
In the case of DeBerry, many of the payments came as a result of 14 out-of-state trips she made last year. DeBerry is chairman of the board of the State Legislative Leadership Foundation, an international organization that paid her travel expenses for trips to Germany, Lithuania and China.
Thus, the travel cost taxpayers nothing, as was the case with her other trips within the United States. But while she was making those trips, DeBerry collected per diem payments as allowed under rules governing the payments. She received $1,288 in per diem for the China trip.
DeBerry also is active in other legislative organizations, ranging from the National Conference of Black State Legislators to the Southern Regional Education Board and Women in Government. She travels to their meetings, too, though she said the trips often leave her exhausted and living on "a suitcase full of peanut butter and crackers."
"I was tired. I didn't have time to breathe or relax," she said. "But when you are involved in an organization, you have a commitment."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh also went to China in 2007, accompanying Gov. Phil Bredesen on a trade mission. As with DeBerry, their travel costs such as airfare and motel expenses were not charged to the state.
But Ramsey billed the state for 12 days of per diem, collecting $1,932, and Naifeh billed for 11 days, collecting $1,771.
In general, per diem payments are a substitute for reimbursement of motel and meal expenses that lawmakers from East and West Tennessee typically must pay. But many Middle Tennessee legislators can commute to the state Capitol.
Two of them, Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, and freshman Rep. Bob Bibb, D-Springfield, reimbursed the state for the per diem payments they received in 2007. Both said their decision was personal and they don't fault others for accepting the payments.
"For me, I just could not in good conscience take money for expenses when I sleep in my own bed every night," said Bibb, who also donates $8,000 of his salary to a Robertson County scholarship.
Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com
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