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Some Local Lawmakers Doubling State House Salary

9:27 AM, Feb 8, 2013   |    comments
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Columbia, SC (WLTX) - At the South Carolina State House, some lawmakers drive hundreds of miles to get to work,  others could walk.  

A review of Senate and House of Representatives Clerk records shows some of those close enough to walk are taking home money designed for hotels and meals.

"We get what's called a subsistence payment," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D-Richland). 

Rutherford, along with every other lawmaker, can take home $131 in subsistence money for every day they work at the state capitol.

The rate is set using a federal standard established by the IRS. 

The money is supposed to cover costs for lawmakers who drive to Columbia from other areas of the state.  However the comptrollers office tells us they, "are not aware of anything in statute, proviso, or regulation that defines allowable uses for legislative subsistence payments".

"That money has not been increased in a long time," said Rutherford.  "You have members coming from Charleston that are actually paying money to be members of the general assembly."

Rutherford lives only two miles from the state house and pocketed around $8,000 in subsistence money last year.  He says he did not use the money on hotels or food.

"Subsistence really falls into two groups," said house freshman Kirkman Finlay.  "One for paying for hotels while staying in Columbia and meals.  Obviously, if you're away from home you need some compensation for your meals at night.  If I'm going to eat at home and stay at home, why would I claim subsistence payments?"

Finlay argues local lawmakers should exercise more personal discretion with taxpayer's money.

Finlay, along with Lexington Senator Katrina Shealy, say they will not take subsistence money this legislative session.

"Per diem would be to pay for my hotel stay," said Shealy.  "I'm going to go home to Red Bank and sleep in my bed and be with my husband and cute little dog.  That's where I'm going to be at night."

Shealy lives 14 miles from the State House.  She says she was eating before being elected to the Senate and doesn't expect taxpayers to start paying for her food now.

"People justify it different," said Shealy.  "Some people say it's part of their salary and if they can justify that, that's good.  I didn't' take this job as a senator to make a livin."

In 2012, nearly a million dollars in subsistence payments were given to members of the House.  In the Senate, members took home some $420,000.

"I think that we should expect our lawmakers to act ethically with the money they're being given and if they don't need the money for those expenses then they shouldn't take it," said taxpayer Melanie Dubard.  "If it's not going for what it's intended for, if it's not paying for meals, hotels, etcetera then I don't think ethically they should take that money."

Some local lawmakers who take the money say they consider it part of their regular income because the money is taxed just like their salary if they live within 50 miles of the state house.

"I pay income taxes on anything that comes from that state house," said Rutherford.  Even though it was taxed, subsistence money nearly doubled the house minority leader's salary last year.  

He said, "Not only are they essential, but I think the fact that we haven't raised them is a deliberate act to keep ordinary people out of Columbia."

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