California Lawmakers Collect Thousands on Top of Salary While Absent
The state Capitol in Sacramento. (Craig Miller/KQED)
In addition to their six-figure salaries and benefits, California lawmakers are compensated for food and cost-of-living expenses when they travel to Sacramento to write and pass bills. Unlike many states, however, California has loosely worded rules that allow lawmakers to collect those payments regardless of whether they even show up to work.
It's a perk unlike anything typically available to workers in the private sector, allowing lawmakers such as Assemblyman Roger Hernandez to take unlimited time off and continue collecting a tax-free, daily allowance of $176.
The West Covina Democrat said his 24 sick days this session were due to high blood pressure, a condition he disclosed to reporters after his wife accused him of physical abuse and obtained a restraining order against him during divorce proceedings. Hernandez said he never considered waiving the $4,168 in per diem he collected over those days.
"My landlord in Sacramento didn't consider waiving my rent," Hernandez said of the Sacramento home he has leased for more than five years.
California's 120 lawmakers, plus one who has since resigned, took 325 days off during the legislative session and collected about $56,000 collectively in taxpayer-funded living expenses in the process, a review by The Associated Press found. Lawmakers took days off to stay home sick, be with their families or for other reasons unrelated to their jobs.
The AP obtained payroll documents through legislative open records requests and compared them to daily roll calls published in journals from the two-year legislative session from December 2014 through last Aug. 8.
The data show lawmakers were absent from the capital a total of 1,093 days, and the vast majority of them regularly collected payments for living expenses on days they were away.
Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker of Dublin, about 90 miles from Sacramento, is among a handful of lawmakers who waive all per diem payments, choosing not to opt into a system that she calls flawed. When the Legislature is in session, she said she crashes on her parents' couch in West Sacramento.
She said no employer pays you when you're at home.
"That's the kind of fringe benefit that we can let the taxpayers not have to fund," Baker said.
State law allows per diem for living expenses connected to lawmakers' official duties, such as attending a floor session or committee meeting and also during "any other legislative function" authorized by rules that lawmakers have written for themselves over time.
Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a watchdog group, said lawmakers essentially see per diem as an extension of their $100,000 to $115,000 annual salaries.
"They don't feel they get enough salary," Stern said. "When they're not there, they shouldn't be getting at least meals."
Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees payroll in the lower chamber, said collecting per diem is "optional" for lawmakers. The rules do not mandate it or specify whether absences qualify, leaving the payments open to interpretation.
"Nowhere does it explicitly state 'You are paid when you are sick,' " Gravert said.
The rules effectively give lawmakers a pass for any excuse other than personal business, which includes campaigning. But it's up to lawmakers to decide whether their reason for being gone qualifies for pay.
AP's review also found that lawmakers collectively received nearly $52,000 on 300 days they said they were away from Sacramento and reported they were still working. They waived per diem on all 383 days they reported taking personal days, as well as on 85 days they voluntarily waived per diem when gone for other reasons.
The largest individual recipient was former Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, who collected nearly $13,000 while missing most of this year's legislative session when she became ill. She died July 14.
Runner, who returned to the Legislature in 2015 after receiving a double lung transplant in 2012, missed nearly every legislative business day in the four months before she died, collecting $12,976 in per diem on 74 sick days this session.
"Despite her illness, Sharon was involved in the day-to-day decision-making process in her office," said Micah Grant, a spokesman for Runner's husband, Board of Equalization member George Runner.
Kevin McCarty, a Democrat who lives 2 miles from the Capitol, waived per diem at the start of this session and then began collecting it in January. He said he donates the sum to a children's charity, which he calls a "mini-appropriation" of money in the state budget.
States vary widely in how they distribute per diem. In some, lawmakers are expected to be physically present for a head count in the Capitol to get the allowance. In Maryland, lawmakers submit food receipts to receive meal reimbursements.