Lawmakers' per diem becoming election issue - WSMV Channel 4

Lawmakers' per diem becoming election issue

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There is a new "dust-up" over the money given to state lawmakers for food and travel to the Capitol. Should lawmakers that live in town get that per diem money and get to keep it?

Public pressure has many on the campaign trail promising to return that money.

In both primaries and general elections, candidates are making pledges to return the per diem money the state gives every lawmaker to stay in Nashville, regardless of where they live.

Some watchdogs said it's a great idea as long as lawmakers aren't making an empty promise.

Steve Dickerson and Phillip North are on different sides of the aisle competing for the District 20 State Senate seat.

But there's one campaign pledge they have in common - neither plans to keep the per diem given to lawmakers when they spend time in Nashville.

"People are paying quite a bit more attention to how government spends their money and it's not just how out politicians in Washington spend our money, but how our local politicians in Nashville spend our money," said Tennessee Beacon Center's Justin Owen.

Lawmakers collect $173 each day for food and lodging whether they live in Mountain City, Memphis or here in Middle Tennessee. Now that is becoming a major issue on the campaign trail.

Last year Davidson County house lawmakers collected $125,000 in per diem, and that number gets a lot larger if you include lawmakers who live in adjacent counties.

Only two, state Sen. Douglas Henry and state Rep. Jim Gotto, returned the per diem.

House speaker Beth Harwell donated it to charity.

"There's a lot wrong with the per diem system because the local lawmakers can actually rake in a lot more cash because they don't have the expenses but they get the same amount of money," said Owen. "That needs to change."

From the primaries to the general election, more than a dozen local candidates for state office have pledged to either return or donate the per diems they collect.

There's more displeasure from voters about the money and the pressure is starting to build.

Owen said this could create a move to reform the current per diem system, to fairly compensate out-of-town lawmakers who must pay for lodging, but also scale back the amount to lawmakers who return home every night.

"It's interesting to see so many candidates for office making this a campaign issue," said Owen. "It's nice to see them talking about this. I would hope that if they do win that they make do on those promises."

In the past, efforts to freeze or limit per diem rates have stalled in the legislature.

This year the rate will stay at $173 per day. However, lawmakers will see a pay raise because state employees received pay raises.

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