Ask a typical Louisiana legislator about his compensation, and you’ll likely get the usual story that the part-time status assigned to lawmakers is a myth. You’re likely to hear all kinds of horror stories about how they have to travel to Baton Rouge, some from as far away as Shreveport, to tend to state business.
But for many legislators, there are conspicuous gaps in those tales of woe.
They will tell you those trips to the state capital are not limited to the legislative sessions (85 days in even-numbered years, 60 days in odd-numbered years), that they attend committee meetings year-round.
All that is true enough but when they do travel to Baton Rouge, they receive per diem that averages around $150 per day (the rate is tied to the federal reimbursement rate and fluctuates accordingly), plus mileage.
But as always when a politician is talking, it’s best to listen carefully to what he doesn’t say.
Bear in mind that they collect the $150 or so per diem for all 85 days in even years even though lawmakers rarely meet on Fridays and never on weekends or Memorial Day, meaning there are as many as 37 days in even years and 24 days in odd years on which they do not meet but are paid.
Still, they will tell you the $16,800 per year in salary is a pittance for the work they do. Never mind the $500 per month in vouchered expenses and $1,500 per month in unvouchered expense they receive, bring their total compensation to something a little north of $50,000 per year.
And granted, that’s not much when you consider the time they are required to take from their regular jobs.
But there’s a dirty little secret they don’t—and won’t—tell you.
And that is 27 of 39 current senators (69 percent) and 52 of 104 representatives (exactly half) access campaign contributions to elevate them to lifestyles the average person can only dream of.
You might think campaign funds would be used exclusively for campaign-related expenses but you would be wrong. Louisiana legislators (and many other office holders as well, including mayors, sheriffs and state officials) regularly spend campaign funds on such things as tickets to big-time athletic events, lavish meals, and extensive travel.
And then there’s the story of Sen. Sherri Buffington (R-Shreveport). In January of 2004, she was Sherri Smith Cheek and she and her then-husband, Jon Cheek, traveled to New Orleans to attend the NCAA national championship football game between LSU and Oklahoma but forgot his tickets.
No problem. Sherri Smith Cheek, a freshman senator, simply called State Police and arranged for a Pony Express-type relay by state troopers from Shreveport to New Orleans to deliver the six tickets. When word of the special deliver leaked out, she expressed her regret (don’t they always feel just awful—after they’re caught?) and said she would repay State Police $448.50, based on her computation of 12 hours of trooper pay. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1060246/posts
A check of her campaign expense records, however, revealed no such payment to State Police. That, however, does not preclude her having paid the money from personal funds.
But those same campaign expense records show that Sherri Smith Cheek Buffington (she has re-married) did spend $20,548 on LSU football tickets between 2009 and 2014.
In fact, 22 senators and 36 members of the House spent $577,839 on LSU tickets from 2003 to 2014, according to campaign expense records. The breakdown was 22 senators ($240,678) and 36 representatives ($337,161). LSU ATHLETICS
Buffington’s $20,548 was not the most spent on LSU tickets by a legislator, however. Not even close.
Nine others outspent her on tickets to Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium. They include the $30,170 by Sen. Gary Smith (D-Norco), ($28,745 by Sen. Norby Chabert (R-Houma), $25,414 by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles), $23,984 by Rep. Joel Robideaux (R-Lafayette), $23,026 by Rep. Frank Hoffman (R-West Monroe), $21,924 by Sen. Jonathan Perry (R-Kaplan), $21,856 by Sen. Dale Erdey (R-Livingston), $21,680 by Rep. Patrick Connick (R-Marrero), and $20,942 by Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego).
Nor were tickets to athletic events limited to LSU.
Other expenditures will be explored in more depth in subsequent posts. To give you an idea of how legislators develop a sense of entitlement while denying increases in the minimum wage, voting down equal pay for women bills, rejecting Medicaid that would provide expanded healthcare to the state’s lower income citizens and generally falling all over each other in an effort to be front and center in sacrificing higher education and state hospitals at the altar of Bobby Jindal, here’s a teaser on other campaign fund expenditures:
- Six senators and three House members combined to spend $46,417 on New Orleans Saints tickets since 2003; NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
- Seven members of the Senate and two representatives combined to shell out $37,093 on tickets to New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans NBA basketball games over the same time span; NEW ORLEANS HORNETS NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
- Twenty-two members of the Legislature (11 each from the House and Senate) combined to use $35,494 in campaign funds for Sugar Bowl football and NCAA basketball tournament tickets; SUGAR BOWL NCAA REGIONALS
- Twenty-seven members (eight from the Senate and 19 from the House) paid out $61,606 for out-of-state travel (even though none of the members were seeking office outside Louisiana); TRAVEL
- Members of the two chambers managed to spend some $380,000 on meals—much of that for campaign supporters and workers, which technically, would be campaign-related and permissible, but a sizable chunk of which appears to be for less noble purposes. RESTAURANTS MEALS
The State Ethics Board has issued several opinions on campaign fund spending limitations over the years and some of those opinions have specifically addressed the expenditure of campaign funds for personal use. Those opinions, which would seem to prohibit use of funds for athletic events, etc., will be discussed in upcoming posts.