Vermont Legislators Admit to Cheating the System. Are They Justified?
State Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) has a confession to make that might sound to some like political suicide.
He bills taxpayers for his “mileage” to and from the Statehouse — as much as $152 a week — even on days when he gets a ride with fellow lawmakers or lobbyists.
Zuckerman also takes full advantage of the $61 daily meal allowance afforded to legislators when they are in session, but admits he rarely spends that much on food.
“Every day I claim the mileage, and I probably shouldn’t,” says Zuckerman, a ponytailed Progressive who runs an organic vegetable farm in Hinesburg. Beyond that, though, Zuckerman isn’t apologizing for his behavior.
How does he get away with what could be described as fraud?
Legislators aren’t required to submit receipts for their mileage, meals or lodging expenses during the regular legislative session. In January, they simply fill out a form indicating what they expect to spend and then collect biweekly “per diem” checks based on their claims. It’s an honor system. If their circumstances change, legislators are supposed to file a “change” form adjusting their costs up or down.
Vermont lawmakers and state employees get the same reimbursement rates as federal employees: 50 cents a mile, $101 a night for lodging and $61 a day for meals. Lawmakers recently voted themselves a 5 percent pay cut in solidarity with recession-impacted voters; it shaved $100,000 off their collective salaries. Meanwhile, reimbursement rates for meals and lodging increased. Per diem expenses in 2010 could cost as much as $140,000 more than in 2009.
Zuckerman was virtually alone in opposing the salary reduction. He contends it was a political maneuver that had nothing to do with saving taxpayer money.
The 38-year-old farmer justifies collecting more for mileage and food than he actually spends by considering it as part of his overall compensation. Legislator pay doesn’t cover constituent meetings, cellphone calls and travel to special events after the session ends, he notes. Mileage and meals put another few hundred dollars in Zuckerman’s pocket each year — more for some lawmakers who drive further or stay overnight more often. Claiming the full reimbursement evens things out, he says.
To illustrate his point, Zuckerman has documented a decade of paltry pay raises. Over the din of the Statehouse cafeteria, he explains a homemade spreadsheet that demonstrates how his pay has fluctuated over the 13 years he’s been a legislator.
Base pay for a legislator is $625 a week, for as long as the session runs, and $118 a day for official off-season work — special sessions, summer committees, etc. Legislators still get reimbursed for expenses incurred outside the session, but they have to produce receipts for them. Since 1997, Zuckerman’s overall compensation — base salary plus expenses — has risen an average 1.1 percent per year, far less than the cost-of-living adjustments afforded to most state employees.
“We signed up for this,” Zuckerman says. “I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to present the facts of what we do and what we get compensated.”
Many lawmakers admit it doesn’t cost them $61 a day to fill their bellies, nor $101 a night to crash in Montpelier — a room at the Capital Plaza runs $106, but many lawmakers make more affordable arrangements, such as renting apartments together. Several politicians interviewed by Seven Days admitted they pocketed the difference, though none as righteously as Zuckerman.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) often crashes with his parents, who live on the Barre-Montpelier Road. Illuzzi says he pays no rent to his ’rents, but uses his lodging allowance to help pay their heating bill. Even so, Illuzzi admits that contribution doesn’t cost anywhere near $101 a night. For food, Illuzzi estimates he spends between $30 and $50 per day.
Opinions differ sharply when it comes to benefiting financially for miles not driven, hotel rooms not occupied, and meals not eaten. Illuzzi says he doesn’t begrudge Zuckerman or any other lawmaker who keeps the cash, because lawmakers do work in the off season and don’t get paid for it. That said, Illuzzi reduced his reimbursement amount after missing four days at the Capitol last month.
State Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) is more of a stickler. During the first pay period of January, the former Vermont auditor had billed the state $1048 for eight days of driving to and from Montpelier, and eight days of meals at $61 per day. But when business called Brock out of town unexpectedly, the senator found he needed reimbursement for only seven days. So he filed a “change” form with the payroll office to reflect his true costs. The savings to taxpayers: $131.
“We’re paid for the mileage we actually use,” Brock says. “And I don’t believe I should be paid if I’m not doing what was contracted. We have in statute an amount legislators are paid and an amount of allowances that legislators get, and I think we have to live with that.”
One hundred thirty-one bucks might sound like chump change in light of the state’s $150 million budget deficit, but Brock says it’s the principle that matters. Yet, even he admits to spending less than half the $61 daily meal allowance he collects. Brock commutes 70 miles into the capital from Swanton each day, and guesses he spends no more than $20 for lunch, coffee and a snack most days he’s there. That’s not the case for every lawmaker, Brock notes.
“Some of our larger members might eat substantially more,” he quips. It’s worth noting that the Statehouse reimbursement system, however loosey-goosey it is, promotes good behavior by offering economic incentives for lawmakers to eat less and carpool.
Zuckerman’s main argument is that lawmakers earn so little money, the job is unaffordable for average working Vermonters. Even after maxing out his mileage and food allowances, Zuckerman says his legislative pay comes to around $16,500 — barely enough to pay the farm hands he hires to replace him in the fields while he’s at the Statehouse.
“The pay is so low it’s deterring people who are accelerating in their careers,” Zuckerman says. “If you look around this building, there are very few people in their prime earning years, in their thirties and forties and even early low fifties. Shouldn’t we make this a position that can bring all types of expertise to the process?”
Legislator pay and reimbursements have been hotly debated for years. Sixteen years ago, Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne busted Progressive state Reps. Dean Corren and Terry Bouricius for double dipping. Each claimed mileage, even when they carpooled. Both men were reelected.
A 2004 report from the Snelling Center for Government backs up the claims by Zuckerman and others that lawmakers are underpaid. The study found Vermont lawmakers spend 50 percent more time in Montpelier than they did in the 1970s, and devote 15 to 20 hours a week on legislative work outside the session. Base salary, meanwhile, has not risen in proportion to the increased workload.
The Snelling Center recommended upping legislator salaries to bring them in line with those of average private-sector workers — $30,000 a year at the time — and paying a portion of that over the seven months they’re not in session. Doing that would have put another $3543 in lawmakers’ pockets each year, and still kept legislative pay less than two-tenths of 1 percent of annual state spending, the report stated.