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By Tom Loftus
FRANKFORT, Ky. – The patchwork of laws and policies for compensating Kentucky’s state legislators has produced an unlikely ranking of lawmakers.
For instance, in 2013 Rep. Keith Hall’s total compensation — including expenses — was $86,514, which was higher than any House member, even Speaker Greg Stumbo, who ranked second at $83,602.
In the Senate, Republican Caucus Chairman Dan Seum of Louisville made $79,352 in salary and expenses compared to $57,440 for a higher-ranked senator — Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.
Records obtained by The Courier-Journal from the Legislative Research Commission show total compensation to lawmakers last year ranged from a high of $90,161 paid to Senate President Robert Stivers to a low of $40,327 paid to Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington.
The rankings’ spread results mostly from the number of days between legislative sessions that a legislator wants to work — and is authorized to work by either Stumbo or Stivers. Also, Kentucky lawmakers actually are paid more in various categories of expenses than they are in salary — and those expenses can soar for some lawmakers who live at the far ends of the state.
The disparities have prompted a legislative review.
Stivers, R-Manchester, inserted a directive into this year’s budget bill that the legislative staff review policies on paying legislators expenses and recommend improvements by July 1.
“... I asked for this so we can have a more consistent policy and there can be a better idea of what would be too high and what might be too low,” Stivers said.
Stumbo said he did not know what to expect from the review.
But he declined to criticize Hall or others whose large number of interim pay days he approved, saying the pay for Kentucky legislators is low and he’s inclined to approve requests from lawmakers who want to attend extra meetings and conferences.
“People should be paid for their work. And I see a lot of people who do a helluva lot less work in Frankfort than every legislator I know and make three times the salary,” Stumbo said.
Adding it together
Legislators are paid for every day they are in session including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.Regular members get $188.22 per day. Leaders get more, with the top pay of $235.57 per day going to the two top leaders — Stumbo and Stivers.
In 2013 lawmakers convened for a short regular session plus a one-week special session for legislative redistricting. That totaled 59 days of salary, or $11,104.98 for a non-leader.
But legislators also are paid for days they are authorized to work during the interim, and this is where the variance in pay begins to show.
Lawmakers are automatically authorized for pay to attend meetings of interim committees on which they sit, but that’s only a couple of days a month.
In the House, Stumbo has a policy that assumes lawmakers have work to do in Frankfort. That policy gives members up to two additional days per month. Committee chairmen can take up to three days per month.
Beyond that, House members can ask Stumbo’s permission — and senators Stivers’ permission — to be paid salary and expenses for attending other meetings or events related to their legislative work.
Finally, any member of House or Senate leadership (majority or minority) is assumed to have work to do and is automatically authorized for pay on any interim days they report to Frankfort.
Seum has most pay days
Under the policy that lets leaders work whenever they want, Seum had by far the most pay days between sessions last year — 135, records show. Rep. Toby Herald, R-Beattyville, had the fewest with six.
“When I’ve got work to do, I go to my office in Frankfort. If I work out of my house, I don’t get paid,” said Seum, who retired from a career as a restaurant owner in 2000. “I’ve got to get paid something. I’ve got to make some kind of salary.”
Seum’s 135 interim days last year easily topped two legislators tied with the next highest total of 122 — Stivers and Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington.
Seum noted that only about half of his total compensation was in salary, with the rest in various categories of expenses. “I don’t make in salary what a local councilman makes. I think most of us (legislators) are a bargain,” he said.
The salary of a member of the Louisville Metro Council is $44,189.
Stivers had no complaints with the number of days worked by Seum. “I am not up there all of the time and there are things we have to address — a necessity for leaders to be there for some purpose or function,” Stivers said.
But Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, a conservative think-tank headquartered in Bowling Green, said 135 interim pay days for Seum seems too many compared to just 25 days for a senator Waters said has more responsibility — Bob Leeper, a Paducah independent who chairs the Senate budget committee.
“Taxpayers need more accountability for what return they get on the investment in so many additional days of pay,” Waters said.
Hall again tops in expenses
During sessions, each lawmaker is paid $135.30 per day in expenses. Also during sessions they get compensated at 56.5 cents per mile for one roundtrip to Frankfort and back home per week.
Out of session, lawmakers are paid $1,788.51 a month in expenses for working at home offices and traveling in their district.
But they also get reimbursed for actual expenses incurred during interim days they are authorized to work.
Hall’s reimbursement for these actual expenses during his 95 authorized interim work days in 2013 was $28,545 — $5,600 higher than the legislator with the second-highest amount. His vouchers show he was paid $18,792 for driving about 33,000 miles to meetings and events; $7,212 for 87 nights of lodging; $2,434 for about 300 meals; and $107 for other expenses such as parking.
Hall, a Democrat from Phelps who has served in the House since 2001, lost in the May 20 primary to Chris Harris, a Pike County magistrate.
Hall declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement he said, “Naturally my expenses are higher than most legislators due to the fact that I live 200 miles from the Capitol, and I spend more days traveling and searching for new job opportunities for my district.”
But Richard Beliles, chairman of the watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky, said, “It’s too high. Expense accounts are not supposed to be a money-making thing. And — on the face of it — that’s what it looks like when one legislator’s expenses are that much higher than everybody else.”
Beliles said he expected Hall’s near-constant shuttling between Phelps and Frankfort could be significantly reduced simply by better communication through Skype, email and telephone.
Stumbo and Stivers said they do not know what to expect from the pending review on compensation from the legislative staff. And Legislative Research Commission Director Marcia Seiler declined to comment until the work is finished.
But House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said one improvement might be “more steadfast rules on the requests for interim work days in Frankfort rather that leaving that up to the discretion of the two top leaders.”
Editor’s note: Reprinted through the Kentucky Press News Service.