Lawmakers might not have a budget, but per diem costs are down
While the Illinois General Assembly might have wrapped up its session Sunday without resolving the state's budget problems, taxpayers can take solace in one thing: Per diem and mileage payments to lawmakers are at the lowest levels in at least seven years.
And House Speaker Michael Madigan said taxpayers can't be charged for state representatives' mileage and $111 daily allowances when he calls his chamber back to Springfield on Thursday.
This year, Illinois ranks 32nd among the states for amount paid for legislative daily allowances, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2010, when Illinois' per diem was at its highest point of $139, Illinois ranked 14th in the nation.
Mileage and the per diem, meant to cover meals and housing while the legislature is in session, are on top of legislators' $67,836 base salaries. Many lawmakers also collect stipends for leading legislative committees.
Legislators have been paid a little more than $1.1 million total through 11 months of this fiscal year, according to Comptroller Leslie Munger's office. It's unlikely legislators will receive any more daily allowance or mileage payments before the new fiscal year starts July 1.
"That's a small bit of good news. It's very small, but it is good news," said Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who's been at odds with the Democrat-majority legislature over a spending plan that is at least $3 billion in the red.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said per diems and mileage reimbursements aren't allowed after May 31 unless the governor calls a special session.
Brown said since Madigan is calling House members back to "work on substantive legislation" for just one day, the 118 representatives are not entitled to a per diem or mileage reimbursements by law.
Costs are declining for two main reasons: The legislature has been in session for fewer days and reimbursement rates are lower than they were seven years ago.
In 2009, taxpayers spent more than $2.3 million on legislative allowance and mileage costs. That's when the per diem rate was $132 and lawmakers were reimbursed at 55 cents per mile. Now the allowance is $111 a day during session and the mileage rate is 39 cents per mile. The rates were cut ahead of the 2011 session, according to state records.
The House and Senate were in session 73 days and 74 days respectively in 2009. This year, both chambers tallied just 54 session days by May 31.
The average daily allowance costs dropped from nearly $22,000 in 2009 to less than $15,200 this year, according to the comptroller's figures.
It's also become increasingly common for some legislators to forgo the entitlements.
"We're absolutely moving in the right direction if taxpayer outrage of this generous benefit has created a response of some legislators not taking advantage of this," said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending. "We pay our legislators exceedingly well for a part-time job and expenses should come from the salary, which is more than enough to cover those costs."
Meanwhile, some suburban legislators said the salaries should be slashed instead.
"I'd prefer they cut our pay overall," said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican. "I think people understand we have expenses, but the pay is high."
Seven states don't pay legislators a daily allowance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Only six states have lower mileage reimbursement rates than Illinois, according to another NCSL study.
That's not good enough for at least one lawmaker.
"We have nothing to be proud of here," complained state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat. "We haven't passed a budget or fixed pensions, so let's not kid ourselves. We did a fiscally responsible thing at a micro level several years ago, but not at the macro level."
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