Paying Legislators to Attend When They Aren’t Members – A better idea
By David Ferguson
A few days ago, the budget for the Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force was tripled from $50,000 to $150,000. It is the budget for paying mileage and per diem to legislators who attend task force meetings. Much of the task force’s allotment was spent on paying legislators who are not members of the task force.
Representative Josh Miller questioned the wisdom of raising the task force budget to pay non-members who sign in at the meeting. Senator Linda Chesterfield defended the increase saying, “We can say to [General] Assembly members who are not on the committee, ‘Don’t come. Don’t find out what we are talking about,’ or we can do as we did with health reform [task force] and accommodate them by enlarging the budget.”[i]
The expenditure for paying non-task force members to attend the meetings is just the tip of the iceberg. Every legislative task force and every legislative committee pays non-committee members who sign in.
The legislature’s policy of paying non-committee members didn’t come about until after 1992. Before then, a legislator either had to be a member of the committee or the committee chair had to approve payment because the non-member legislator was presenting a study request to the committee.
With the 1992 term limits causing a third of the House of Representatives to be new members every two years, it was argued legislators needed to be educated more quickly, and therefore to encourage them to attend meetings of many committees, the legislature adopted the “Y’all Come and Be Paid” policy, which means any legislator who shows up gets paid for being at the committee meeting.
The education argument went away in 2014 when term limits were weakened with a 16-year term limit. Big turn overs in the legislature are a thing of the past, but no one considered ending the “Y’all Come and be Paid” policy.
HOW THE POLICY BLOATS EXPENSES
When I worked for the Bureau of Legislative Research, I saw the “Y’all Come and Be Paid” policy in use daily. Much of what went on was not about legislators being educated. It was about getting another per diem payment just for being in town. (Now $155.)
Some of non-committee members would hang around and listen, at least until they had something else to do. But, it was common to see a legislator walk into a committee meeting (of which he was not a member), go straight to the sign in sheet, and soon walk out. Some would hang around for a while, drink a cup of coffee, talk to some colleagues or lobbyists, and then walk out holding a cell phone in hand as if something urgent just came up.
A legislator who attends a legislative committee meeting or legislative task force meeting receives a payment for mileage to and from home, a per diem for lodging, and a per diem for meals. No receipts necessary.
A legislator receiving payment for attending his own committees is not at issue. The issue is the temptation for the legislator to find a committee of which he is not a member and sign in just to get paid. Here are some typical situations where a legislator signs in but cares nothing about listening to the committee discussion:
- A legislator attends his committee meeting and spends the night in Little Rock. He has nothing going on the next day, but before going home he can get another per diem payment if he drops by the Capitol and signs into a committee.
- A legislator has a committee meeting on Wednesday and one on Friday but doesn’t have a meeting on Thursday. Since he is already in town he can drop by any legislative committee meeting on Thursday and get paid.
- A legislator comes to Little Rock to meet with a lobbyist and the lobbyist’s clients. The state doesn’t pay, except for legislative committee meetings, so, the legislator finds a committee that is meeting and signs in for a per diem payment. The legislator could have had the meeting with the lobbyist on a day he actually has a committee meeting
These are all accepted practices.
The “Y’all Come and Be Paid” policy is impossible to police. In the past, committee chairs have tried. What are you going to do … put a timer on a legislator to ensure he spends a respectable amount of time in the meeting before ducking out?
Perhaps the policy helps educate a few legislators, but even if every non-committee member who signed in was forced to stay the entire meeting before getting paid, there is still a much cheaper way to achieve the goal of educating legislators.
THE STATUS OF COMMITTEE MEMBERSHIP
With more non-committee members dropping by, many committee chairs began inviting the non-committee members to sit in empty chairs at the committee table. Then it became common in many committees for non-committee members to participate just like members (other than voting). Some legislators complain that their committee membership has been diminished by this.
So many non-committee members come to participate in some committees that some committee chairs have sometimes found it necessary to announce committee members will be recognized first before non-members.
A MUCH BETTER USE OF TAXPAYER MONEY
Instead of paying tons of money to non-committee members to come and gawk, the gawkers could get the same education and information for a lot less money. How? By the legislature providing live video streaming and recording of all legislative meetings held in Little Rock.
If the goal is to educate legislators and is not about extra income, providing live streaming and video recording can reach more legislators.
If saving taxpayer money is of any concern, providing video would be cheaper than the “Y’all Come and Be Paid” policy.
Here are some questions that might be raised by those who want to keep the money flowing:
- What if a non-committee member legislator wanted to ask a question? It used to be that a non-committee member had to slip a note to a committee member to get a question asked or a point made. With technology this is even easier. A legislator watching the live feed from home could simply text a question or point to a committee member. (Lobbyists in the audience text committee members all the time.)
- What if the legislator wants to see the agenda and attachments? The agenda and attachments are already posted on the General Assembly’s website. Even some last-minute exhibits can be attached to the video archive page.
- What if legislators don’t have the set up to watch live video back home? Watching live events on computer is now common place, and don’t worry about legislators not having a laptop to use, every legislator is offered the use of a nice state issued laptop.
At least four House Committee rooms in the Capitol are equipped for live streaming and video recording and House employees run the equipment. Those four rooms can handle nearly all legislative meetings that happen in a day during the interim between sessions. If video equipment was added to the two larger committee rooms (Room 171 in the Capitol and Room A in the Big Mac building) all or practically all meetings could be held in a room with live streaming and video recording. Even better, equip all committee rooms.
Despite most House committee rooms being equipped for video, those rooms are rarely used by the legislature between legislative sessions. House and Senate committees meet jointly between sessions, and the Senate refuses to meet where there is House video equipment.
Providing live streaming and video recording:
- Is much cheaper than the “Y’all Come and Be Paid” policy.
- Gives non-committee member legislators just as much information as being there.
- Allows non-committee members who can’t make it to Little Rock, a way to catch up later by watching the video.
- Also, allows committee members who can’t make it to their committee meeting a way to catch up on information later.
- Provides public access to meetings.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a policy change.
- First, many legislators don’t want the public to see and hear what is going on in their meetings and don’t want a record of their actions.
- Second, many legislators like the ability to get more per diem payments.
The “Y’all Come and Be Paid” policy for Little Rock meetings would be very hard to stop. Once you give a benefit it is very hard to take away.
Is your Representative and Senator willing to stop paying non-committee members to attend (or sign in at) Little Rock meetings?
Is your Representative and Senator willing to open up meetings to the public with live streaming and video recording?
David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature. After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.