Shorten session, save the state money

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 8/11/2011 6:52 AM

"Springfield on $111 a day."

The title would hardly be a best-selling travel guide, but the amount represents the per diem granted to every Illinois legislator for each day he or she is in the capital city on the state's business.

Intended to cover food and lodging for elected representatives who've traveled far from home, the per diem is lower than it used to be, to lawmakers' credit. Yet, it adds up to real money: $20,000 a day. Nearly $1.3 million a year.

When you add the 39 cents-per-mile travel reimbursement for lawmakers, the total is $1.7 million a year, and that is on top of $13.1 million in legislative salaries and leadership stipends.

From our vantage point hundreds of miles from the state capital, it's hard to argue for eliminating the per diem and mileage payments. That could leave the legislature solely in the hands of those able to cover the costs themselves, as state Sen. Pamela Althoff, a Crystal Lake Republican, pointed out to Daily Herald staff writer Jake Griffin in his Suburban Tax Watchdog column Wednesday.

Further, the potential savings from cutting or even eliminating the per diems pale next to the state's $33 billion operating budget.

But with Illinois owing some $4.5 billion in overdue bills to schools, hospitals, social services and businesses, it's absolutely necessary to pay attention to every penny. So, some creative and thrifty tactics could whittle lawmakers' expenses -- carpools to Springfield, for example; Amtrak ($36 round trip from Chicago); Travelocity ($59 for a two-star hotel near the Capitol); dorm-style accommodations like those used by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Even requiring receipts for housing and dining reimbursement instead of paying a flat per diem would let taxpayers, rather than lawmakers, pocket any spare change.

But by far the easiest way to cut per diem and mileage costs is for legislators to work more efficiently and get out of Springfield more quickly.

Each winter and spring, lawmakers plod through five months of mostly three- and four-day work weeks, often accomplishing little of substance until a flurry of end-of-session votes in May on key issues including the budget.

This year, lawmakers ended the session on time, a big improvement from the past. But a $20,000-per-day hotel and meal tab plus mileage costs should provide the impetus to shorten the session even more. Some states limit themselves to as few as 40 days in session. Eight more can't go beyond 60 days, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. So far this year, Illinois lawmakers have met for 80, with another eight or so planned in the fall.

"Around the Capitol in Less than 80 Days?" Another title that would never be a best-seller, but it might be a hit with Illinois taxpayers.