Money for Nothing? Montpelier's Mad Method of Compensating Lawmakers
State Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) stepped into a hornet’s nest in February when he told Seven Days he bills taxpayers for mileage to the Statehouse, even on days he doesn’t drive — hundreds of dollars for fuel he never put in his gas tank.
Some fellow lawmakers caused a stir, too, when they acknowledged their daily lodging allowance exceeds what they spend to stay overnight in Montpelier, and their food allowance is far more than they fork over for meals during the session.
Many Seven Days readers were aghast: Are Zuckerman and his colleagues really entitled to allowances for food, gas and lodging even when they spend nothing — or next to nothing — on such expenses?
A “clarifying memo” since issued by the legislature’s top staff attorney says they are.
Emily Bergquist, director of the office of Legislative Council, wrote the February 19 memo to address what she says were “several inquiries about legislative member pay and expenses.”
Bergquist says the law is clear: Mileage, meal and lodging money are allowances, not reimbursements of actual expenses.
That much seems evident from a layperson’s reading of the statute. But does it actually mean that lawmakers get $61 a day for food, even if they brown-bag it? Are they entitled to $101 a day for lodging, even if they crash at a relative’s house for free, as one lawmaker admitted to doing? And can they collect 50 cents a mile between their home and the Capitol even when they hitch a ride with someone else?
In a word, yes.
“It’s just part of the compensation package for the members,” Bergquist says.
While state legislators voted themselves a 5 percent base salary cut this year, allowance rates actually went up — and could cost Vermont taxpayers as much as $140,000 more than in 2009. Vermont’s allowance rates are pegged to the federal employee rate determined each year by the U.S. General Services Administration.
Lawmakers don’t submit receipts for meals, mileage and lodging. Instead, they collect “per diem” checks based on the number of days each week they expect to be in Montpelier. If something changes, they’re supposed to amend the allowance form.
Bergquist says that allowance system has been in use since at least the 1970s. Compensating government employees using allowances rather than reimbursements is a widely accepted practice, she says.
“A lot of government offices do this,” Bergquist says. “It’s a flat amount and means you don’t have to have personnel checking receipts and all that.”
The assumption is that hiring someone to process lawmakers’ receipts would cost taxpayers more than any surplus allowance money that legislators presently pocket. But Bergquist and others admit it’s never been seriously studied.
“I suppose someone would have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Bergquist says.
Zuckerman made himself a poster boy — and a lightning rod — for the issue of legislative allowances, and has sought to highlight what he says is a system that compensates lawmakers unevenly.
“Depending where you live and whether you stay overnight, you get compensated a very different amount for your work than your colleagues,” he says.
Plus, lawmakers who live within 50 miles of Montpelier are taxed on the allowances they take, whereas those from farther away are not — the logic being that staying overnight is a necessity for them, not a choice.
Zuckerman favors getting rid of food and mileage allowances and simply raising legislators’ base pay to levels earned by average Vermont workers. He says lawmakers should have to submit receipts, or copies of leases, for lodging and be reimbursed only for what they actually spend.
But, despite Zuckerman’s outspokenness — and the ensuing outrage over his admissions regarding allowance money — there’s been no movement by him or anyone else to change the system.
Zuckerman says he didn’t pursue the changes he supports because he had more pressing priorities this year, namely school funding, environmental issues and affordable housing.
Bergquist says she knows of no legislator — or bill — taking up the allowance question this year.
Payroll records from 2009 show the allowance system creates notable disparities in the overall pay Vermont lawmakers receive, even as they collect the same base pay of $625 a week.
Last year, the highest-compensated legislators took home more than double what the lowest-paid ones made. Some of that disparity is because certain legislators did off-season work on special committees. And some is a function of which allowances lawmakers claimed and how far from the Capitol they lived.
In theory, allowances compensate lawmakers for what they spend on hotels, restaurant meals and gas, rendering their net pay relatively equal. A room at the Capitol Plaza Hotel runs $93 a night for legislators — pretty close to the $101 daily lodging allowance.
In reality, though, some lawmakers find cheaper accommodations, such as bunking in apartments together, and spend less on food than the allowance provides — meaning they pocket more of the difference.
Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier), who lives a mile and a half from the Statehouse, was the lowest-paid legislator in 2009 and claimed no lodging allowances. She brought home just $13,971 in base pay plus allowances, according to state payroll records.
The highest-paid rank-and-file lawmaker in 2009, Rep. Michael Obuchowski (D-Rockingham), was compensated $29,775, much of which reflects extra-session work. The House speaker and Senate president pro tem earn higher base salaries.
Even legislators from the same town can earn thousands more or less than their colleagues, depending on the allowances they claim.
Consider four lawmakers from Burlington. In 2009, Zuckerman was compensated $16,901 after claiming daily meal and mileage allowances but no lodging. Reps. Jason Lorber and Rachel Weston, who did claim lodging allowances, earned $18,814 and $19,358, respectively. Rep. Joey Donovan took home $20,738.
How much each spent on mileage, meals and lodging — and how much was left over — isn’t known, because lawmakers aren’t required to report that.
For her part, Mary Hooper says she isn’t concerned about being at the bottom of the legislature’s pay scale. But she does worry that the generally low rate of pay deters less affluent Vermonters from running for office.
“I would not do this if my husband did not have a good job,” says Hooper, who says she earns another $2700 a year as the mayor of Montpelier. “If I had to work for a living, I couldn’t do this.”