Special Report: Why Are Local Lawmakers Taking Expense Allowances?

By: Tony Tagliavia Email
By: Tony Tagliavia Email

Taxpayers cover up to $12,000 a year in expenses for Michigan lawmakers on top of their close to $80,000 per year salary.

"It's because they have to eat away from home, live away from home," Secretary of the Senate Carol Viventi told us.

So you might assume that only the people who live far from Lansing ask for the expense allowance. But a News 10 investigation discovered that is not the case.

All 110 members of the House of Representatives and all 38 Senators ask for the extra money every month.

And they can't get it without asking.

That means Rep. Joan Bauer, who lives a little more than 2 miles from the Capitol in Lansing, gets the allowance.

So do Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Mark Meadows who both live about 5 miles away in East Lansing. Rep. Paul Opsommer who lives 9 miles away in DeWitt takes the money, as do Alan Cropsey -- who lives 13 miles away; Rick Jones -- who lives 15 miles away; and Barb Byrum -- who lives 28 miles from the Capitol.

Because they all live within 50 miles, the federal government taxes those expense accounts. (Lawmakers who live farther from the Capitol don't pay the tax.) So while the state is spending the full $1,000 a month the lawmakers get a little more than $600 to spend.

Of course, $12,000 out of the treasury for a handful of lawmakers is a tiny bit of spending for a state with a $40 billion budget.

Still, we wanted to know: why do these Lansing-area legislators take the money? Since they presumably don't need it to keep an apartment in Lansing, what do they use it for?

They're not required to submit receipts but we asked them all for comment and got a couple of responses.

"It pays for a lot of things," Meadows told us. "We make contributions to charities on behalf of people who pass away in the district. And we also fund contributions to the local education foundation for the kids that I give an award to on a monthly basis."

He says it also pays for the cost of sending staff to events and conferences.

"I think there are expenses here that maybe people don't realize and a lot of it is constituent service activities and those take place everywhere," Meadows said.

Like lawmakers' salary, the stipend is set by a commission appointed by the governor -- not the lawmakers themselves.

Opsommer says the expense allowance actually saves taxpayers money.

"If you really looked and were going to pay any legislator in actual mileage for what they spend, we would be spending a lot more," he said.

The DeWitt Republican and others said they need to use the allowance because the amount the state allocates for staff isn't sufficient. Opsommer says he uses the money to cover mileage for going to events in the district.

Technically, there's nothing wrong with that because the lawmakers can use the money for whatever they want.

But we asked political expert Bill Rustem of Public Sector Consultants to tell us why the money was doled out in the first place.

"We're a big geographic state and it's not easy to move around this state so the living expense was built in years ago in order to say to a legislator from the U.P., or up north, look, we're going to help you," Rustem said.

"We don't expect you to make that drive every day. We understand you're going to have to have a place to stay while you're here representing your people your district here in Lansing."

Rustem adds that taking away the allowance from Lansing-area legislators raises questions of fairness. None of the states that pay part of lawmakers' expenses cuts off those who live near the Capitol.

But 11 have rules that give them less money.

For now, though, as is the case in 34 other states, there are no such rules in Michigan.


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