Special Report: Are You Paying for Perks?

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Money for food, money for an apartment -- money for whatever they want. Michigan lawmakers get a $12,000 a year stipend.

All they need to do is ask for it.

"They do not need to turn in receipts," Secretary of the Senate Carol Viventi told News 10.

And the stipend comes on top of legislators' annual salary of $79,650. Lawmakers can also get reimbursed for one round trip a week from their front door to a reserved parking space at the Capitol.

"They have to give us the day and they day they drove back," Viventi said.

Viventi is one of the first people new senators meet, so we asked her to show us around the Capitol and explain the benefits legislators get. So what's the explanation for that $12,000 stipend?

"It's because they have to eat away from home, live away from home," she said. Some live six or eight hours from the Capitol and spend much or all of Mondays and Fridays driving back and forth.

The lawmakers, we should mention, don't set their own pay. The governor appoints a commission that sets it. Representatives and senators then vote on any change in compensation.

Healthcare is also part of that deal. For now, representatives and senators get healthcare for life after age 55 if they put in six years' service or more. (Two proposals currently being considered would end that benefit immediately or in the near future.) There are insurance co-payments, but while in office they don't pay premiums.

Neither do most legislative staffers. Legislators get money to pay for those staffers and their offices too. On the House side, representatives get close to $100,000 for staff and office expenses.

In the Senate, each Republican gets roughly $280,000 in office expenses. Democrats, as the minority party, get just under $200,000 each. Majority senators get more in part because they have to staff committees.

Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) says the state could save a little by evening out what Democrats and Republicans get.

She says living so close to the Capitol she doesn't take advantage of the mileage reimbursement, but she says good representation requires a sizable office budget and the staff to go with it.

"We can get 100 emails in five minutes," Whitmer said. "And we need to respond to all of them."

So how does it all add up?

The total cost of the Michigan legislature, including salaries, benefits and even nonpartisan staff that helps figure out the budget, is around $115 million.

That breaks down to more than $750,000 for every representative and senator in the state.

But "in terms of the total $42 billion budget, it's a small drop in the bucket," said Greg Bird, the governor's budget spokesman.

In fact, eliminating the legislature wouldn't even clear up the deficit in this year's budget. So Bird says the legislature hasn't been a target for cuts.

But the state is looking to trim expenses, and Whitmer says a legislative pay cut could be a symbolic good step.

"We could voluntarily do it," she said. "That's easy enough to do."

Such a move could put Michigan closer in line with neighboring states with full-time legislatures.

Compared to Michigan's nearly $80,000 a year salary, Illinois lawmakers make about $58,000 a year according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In, Wisconsin legislators earn about $47,000. In Ohio, it's roughly $59,000 and they don't get a stipend like Michigan's lawmakers do.

The only state lawmakers with higher salaries are in California. And don't forget, people like House Speaker Andy Dillon and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop get more than $25,000 extra apiece for their leadership roles.

As those leaders look for cuts, legislative pay and benefits haven't yet been publicly targeted.

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