Monday, December 10, 2012

Weak Explanation on Legislative Expenses

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, December 10, 2012


By Bill Gouveia

The topic of state legislators receiving and filing for “per diem” travel, meal and lodging reimbursements simply for showing up to do the job they were elected to perform is a touchy one. Some folks believe lawmakers are entitled to these expense payments, and others believe it constitutes an abuse of the system.

I believe it can be both, and respect the validity of the arguments on each side of the issue. But I have a hard time swallowing those who want to have their cake (or per diem) and eat it too. A little consistency goes a long way.

Per diems reimbursements are in addition to a legislator’s salary. They are intended to offset expenses for lawmakers who actually show up at the statehouse and who file for them. Many representatives and senators who live far from Boston file for them regularly and generally receive the highest totals. Lawmakers from Pittsfield, Provincetown, Nantucket and Lenox are all in the top ten list of those receiving reimbursements.

But some local area representatives also are not shy about receiving the per diem payments. With the Sun Chronicle area generally less than an hour’s travel to Boston, this raises legitimate questions about whether or not their acceptance of the payments is fair and reasonable to taxpayers.

An example of this is Rep. Steven Howitt (R–Seekonk), who was re-elected to second term last month and represents Rehoboth and parts of Seekonk and Norton. The affable lawmaker took per diem payments two years ago, but had not yet filed for this past year by election time. However, he did say he was planning on doing so in the near future.

But Howitt explains his acceptance of the payments by saying he donates the money to charities. He said in his first year as a state rep he actually donated all the per diem money he received – after taxes – to local food pantries and other charities.

At a debate with his opponent in October, Rep. Howitt did not back away from his acceptance of these payments in any way. In fact, he was proud to have donated the funds to worthy causes. He said that if he had not taken the money, it would have been “swallowed up” at the end of the year and gone who-knows-where. At least this way, he pointed out, the state funds did some good for his local constituents. He adamantly said he planned to accept them again and do the same thing this year.

To which many say – are you kidding me?

While Howitt’s charitable inclinations are certainly praiseworthy, they should be done with his own money and not state-funded reimbursements. It is fine if the good representative wants to donate from his pocket to local charities. But he should not do so from the pockets of those he serves.

If he is not keeping the money he takes for per diem payments, then he should let it remain in the state budget. While not a lot, it would help to offset the expected deficits in state spending. If Howitt wants the funding to go to local charities, he should file a bill to do so. Granted, the odds of it passing would be slim to none. But so are the odds of most people accepting this weak and silly explanation.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

No comments: