Miscellaneous payments boost some lawmakers' incomes
By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau El Paso Times
AUSTIN - State legislators often grouse about their measly $7,200 annual salary, but they make thousands more for travel and work they do in Austin.
Six local lawmakers, including one who was attending college in Austin, collected more than $150,000 for travel and work in the capital city last year even though the Legislature convened for just one month.
The El Paso Times reviewed travel and daily pay local legislators received in 2006 and found that, altogether, local lawmakers charged taxpayers for more than 420 days of work they did outside of legislative session.
Legislators said they used the money to defray costs of traveling to Austin regularly to meet with state agencies and attend committee meetings. One local legislator, though, began collecting more state pay and travel expenses about the same time she began classes at the University of Texas at Austin.
"In El Paso, a lot of people go to work and go to school," said state Rep. Norma Chávez, D-El Paso, who received more state pay and travel reimbursement than any other area legislator last year. "I'm no different."
Under the Texas Constitution, legislators are paid a yearly salary of $7,200, or $600 per month.
On top of that salary, lawmakers receive a daily allowance, or a per diem, for housing and meal expenses when they meet in regular or special legislative sessions. They can also get the per diem when the Legislature isn't in session, but they have to request it.
State Reps. Pat Haggerty and Chente Quintanilla each requested and received more than $10,000 in per diem pay between legislative sessions last year. State Rep. Joe Pickett collected $8,000, while state Rep. Paul Moreno got $6,000 and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh received $2,000.
"I actually don't think the state is overgenerous," Pickett said. "It's not something most people could live on."
Shapleigh said the reason his travel expenses were lower is that he spent most of his budget on publications for and mail to his constituents.
"Each member makes their own choice as to how best represent their constituents," he said.
Last year, Chávez collected about $19,600 in per diem pay and was reimbursed more than $11,500 for travel costs between legislative sessions.
Adding together salary, per diem and travel expenses for all of last year, Chávez made more than $43,000. The median household income in El Paso is about $31,000.
As chairwoman of the House Border and International Affairs Committee, Chávez was eligible to collect the per diem of $132 for 16 days of each month when legislators were not in session.
From July to December, Chávez collected an allowance for the maximum number of days the rules allow and her travel expenses increased.
She started attending classes at UT-Austin in August, working on a bachelor's degree in government.
She said she does not use taxpayer dollars to attend school in Austin, but she does schedule her trips to the Capitol around her class schedule.
"We coordinated my dates in Austin for that purpose to coincide with my school days," Chávez said.
She added that she paid for her tuition through a loan she took out on the home her father owns in Austin and that she purchased her own books.
"The state, the taxpayers or the Legislature does not pay for my college," she said.
The six-term lawmaker said she is a full-time legislator who does more constituent work than any other local legislator. It's a challenge to balance schoolwork and legislative work, but Chávez said her education would benefit the people in her district.
Asked why she decided to complete her degree at UT Austin instead of at UTEP, in her hometown, Chávez said that she had previously attended UT-Austin and that it was expedient to resume classes there because it is close to the Capitol.
"My constituents have been very supportive of my returning to school, and I obviously work here at the Capitol," she said.
A review of documents Chávez filed to request per diem pay and travel reimbursement, though, does not make clear what kind of work she did in Austin to warrant legislative pay.
The only reason the documents provide for the expense is "attend to legislative duties."
Steve Adrian, executive director of Texas House business operations, said that that is all the explanation required for lawmakers to collect per diem pay and travel reimbursement.
"We take their word for it that that's what they were doing," Adrian said.
The per diem pay lawmakers got between sessions, he said, came out of their monthly office budget of $11,250. Most legislators, he said, did not request per diem payment for the full number of days they were allowed.
Andrew Wheat, research director for watchdog group Texas Public Citizen, said looking beyond legislators' annual salary reveals some pretty decent perks, including healthy campaign accounts and a generous pension plan.
He said lawmakers should be paid for travel and work they do for their constituents, but he said they should prove that was their reason for using taxpayer dollars.
"If there is a valid purpose for any state remuneration," he said, "then you would think that lawmakers would have same obligation, as any other state bureaucrat, to document the expense."
Brandi Grissom can be reached at email@example.com;
El Paso Times Correction
Andrew Wheat was incorrectly identified in a story about lawmakers' incomes in Sunday's El Paso Times. Wheat is research director for Texans for Public Justice.