You paid $1.7 million for legislators' mileage, daily allowance

Every time a legislator spends the day in Springfield, it costs Illinois taxpayers an extra $111.

Every mile those legislators drive to and from the state capital costs taxpayers another 39 cents.

Combined, those costs totaled $1,709,703 last year. That's on top of the $13.1 million taxpayers spent on salaries and leadership stipends for those same legislators.

“A democracy isn't cheap to run,” said Republican state Rep. Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake. “I don't think the taxpayers expect you to eat the cost of the mileage or the cost of living in Springfield. Your costs of doing the job need to be reimbursed.”

But some government watchdog groups argue that legislators already are being reimbursed for doing the job.

“Most people pay their own way when it comes to putting gas in their cars to get to work or covering the cost of a sandwich at lunchtime,” said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute.

The average salary is $74,185, including leadership stipends that nearly three-quarters of the legislature gets. Combined with the average annual reimbursement of $9,292, Illinois legislators' average pay is $83,477. Only lawmakers in California, New York and Pennsylvania make more on average than Illinois legislators. The median household income in Illinois is $53,966, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Legislators are quick to note those expense figures could have been higher if they hadn't reduced mileage reimbursements by 12 cents a mile and lowered daily allowances by $28 for the past two consecutive years. While some suggested the expense rates could be cut even more, none suggested they be done away with entirely.

“I filed a bill to reduce it by 25 percent and you wouldn't believe the caucus we had,” said Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo. “I was getting screamed at by everybody. I couldn't get a second.”

Franks, who has a lengthy drive between Springfield and his district, tallied the eighth-highest mileage reimbursement and allowance total among all legislators last year. He said the heftiest cost to out-of-town legislators like himself is finding a place to sleep at night. The state rate for a hotel room is $70, but with taxes it's closer to $80, a sizable chunk of a legislator's daily allowance. If every lawmaker spent that much last year, it would have cost $917,787 total, just for lodging.

Franks suggested the state do something similar to what is done with the Illinois Supreme Court, which houses and feeds the justices in a pseudo-dorm setting.

A quick look at the real-estate listings revealed seven Springfield apartment complexes, with a total of 125 units, for sale at a combined price tag of $3.3 million. Four years of legislative housing costs would more than cover the amount of those complexes, and that's without any haggling over price.

“That's one way to be creative and we should look at other ways, too,” said Vernon Hills Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente. “If we're going to look at ways to reduce these costs, maybe it's more of a condensed schedule in Springfield.”

Sente has one of the longer commutes of any legislator at roughly 450 miles round trip. She was reimbursed $4,050 in 2010 for what amounted to 10,385 miles she put on her car.

“When you look at the dollars it's a lot, but when you look at what it has to cover it's actually not,” she said.

State Sen. Pamela Althoff, a Crystal Lake Republican, had the highest expense costs among the 59 senators at $11,351. She, too, cited the distance between her district and the Capitol building. But she also defended the reimbursements, arguing that it allows a wider cross section of the population to participate in public service.

“Any man or woman should be able to run for and serve elected office without financially harming themselves or their family,” Althoff said.

Rasmussen contends legislators are using expense reimbursements as a crutch to not be more frugal with taxpayers' dollars. She suggests legislators could take trains to and from Springfield or carpool, which many admit they don't do.

“It all adds up,” she said. “We don't have $1.7 million laying around. The point is we're in such a bad place, it's time to get creative. Some members of Congress sleep on the couch in their offices.”

All members of the legislature are eligible for the daily $111 allowance. But if a legislator lives within 50 miles of the capital, that per diem is taxed. Mileage reimbursements are not taxed, though, said Brad Hahn, a spokesman for Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who oversees distribution of the funds. The comptroller uses the daily roll call from each chamber of the legislature to determine who receives the allowance.

Franks believes some legislators were leery of cutting benefits because they treat the post as their full-time job. He estimated that only half of the legislature holds full-time employment elsewhere. The legislative session generally lasts roughly five months of mostly three-day work weeks.

“It's only supposed to be a part-time job,” he said.

Some lawmakers contend the job is not part-time like Franks makes it out to be. Sente said she keeps a log of her legislative activities and puts in an average of 46 hours a week each year. Tryon, who was reached by phone despite being on vacation, said he deals with legislative issues every day of the year.

“I don't know where the part time comes from,” he said. “We can continue to cut, but truthfully, what we're getting now doesn't cover it.”

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“I filed a bill to reduce it by 25 percent and you wouldn’t believe the caucus we had. I was getting screamed at by everybody.” — Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo
“I don’t think the taxpayers expect you to eat the cost of the mileage or the cost of living in Springfield.” — Republican state Rep. Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake