Report suggests independent commission to adjust TN legislator pay

A review of Tennessee state legislators’ compensation suggests lawmakers representing large geographic areas get more money for travel within their districts and that an independent commission be created to consider future adjustments in payments, reports the News Sentinel.

The report also proposes consideration of changing state law to let legislators refuse payments and says the current per-diem expense payment system – which gives bigger checks to legislators living more than 50 miles from the state capitol – might be unfair to some members of the General Assembly.

The study by staff of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, or TACIR, was mandated by a resolution – SJR463, sponsored by state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet – that was adopted unanimously by the House and Senate in March. (Note: Full report HERE.)

Overall, the study says Tennessee legislator compensation is “near the middle” of salaries paid to lawmakers in comparable states – a list including eight neighboring states plus Indiana and Louisiana, deemed to have comparable demographics.

…The report notes 21 other states, including the neighboring states of Arkansas and Missouri, have legislative compensation commissions to periodically review and adjust legislative pay.

In discussion of the report at last week’s meeting of the TACIR board, Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland observed it’s politically difficult for legislators to approve increases in their pay, even if justified, and a commission would “take the burden off members” – especially if, as is the case in some states, the commission’s recommendations are automatically adopted without further action by the Legislature.

…A few states offer extra travel expense funding for legislators who represent districts encompassing a large geographic area while Tennessee does not. The only taxpayer-provided money available is the uniform $12,000 annual home-office allowance for all members. The report notes legislators’ in-district travel can overlap with their campaigning for reelection – talking to constituents is also talking to voters – and legislators have the option of using campaign funds for travel expenses within their districts, as many do.

“Although this practice reduces concerns about spending taxpayer dollars for political activities, it may give legislators with large campaign accounts extra resources to spend in other ways. Legislators with smaller campaign funds, perhaps because of closely-contested races, or representing less affluent districts, lack this additional resource,” says the report.

While some legislators have districts falling within a city’s boundary, others have districts covering several counties.

Note: In the Senate, the largest geographic district is represented by Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, stretching over eight counties, followed by the district of Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, that covers seven counties.  In the House, two districts – those represented by Reps. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, and Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads – encompass all or parts of five counties each.

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