COLUMBIA — State lawmakers piled almost $1.5 million worth of reimbursements during the last fiscal year for items including travel and lodging, according to information from the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office.
The reimbursements — which are on par with totals from recent years — come in addition to the $10,400 salary and $1,000 per month for in-district expenses each of the state’s 124 representatives and 46 senators receive.
Some lawmakers say that’s not enough, while critics urge a shorter legislative session that would entail fewer reimbursements.
The reimbursements come from a variety or sources.
Lawmakers receive $131 for each legislative day during the January-to-June legislative session, and mileage expenses for one trip from home to Columbia and back during the session.
Representatives receive 44.5 cents per mile, while senators can claim 50 cents per mile.
Some lawmakers also receive reimbursements for travel to conferences and for official business during the legislative off-season.
Critics, such as the conservative S.C. Policy Council and some legislators, have repeatedly called over the years for a shorter legislative session to cut down on reimbursement totals, among other goals.
But historically, those efforts have failed to clear the Senate.
Longtime Democratic Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston said the reimbursements don’t come close to covering the cost of serving as a legislator in South Carolina.
Ford received $13,645 worth of reimbursements last fiscal year, which put him roughly in the middle of the pack among Charleston-area senators.
He said mileage reimbursements shouldn’t be limited to one round-trip per week during the session.
Ford said he often has to return home to Charleston during the week to help constituents, who have grown in numbers in each lawmakers’ district as the state has gained population.
“That’s wrong because if you’re doing your job as a state senator, they should give mileage reimbursement and per diem,” Ford said.
Lawmakers can receive a $35 per diem for meals, but only when the Legislature is not in session.
Some officials have to return to Columbia during the week to attend committee hearings or other official business during off months.
Those lawmakers receive a round-trip mileage reimbursement for each approved trip to the capital in addition to the per diem.
Reimbursement amounts and pay have been frozen for several years.
Ford said it’s time for the Legislature to take another look at the rates.
“We work six months a year officially, and unofficially we have to serve constituents. When we tell people what we make, nobody believes it,” he said.
Generally, the lawmakers who live in or close to Columbia had the smallest reimbursement totals for the fiscal year that ended in June.
Columbia Democratic Rep. Chris Hart takes pride in his miniscule reimbursement total — just $8.90.
Hart said he lives less than five miles from the Statehouse and generally turns down reimbursements, though he was compensated for mileage for two trips costing $4.45 each.
“I just figured I could save some taxpayer money,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum is Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla. Alexander had the largest reimbursement of any senator at $17,613.
Alexander attributed his large total to long treks to Columbia from the mountains of Oconee County.
“I have a longer drive than virtually everybody in Senate, and perfect attendance,” he said. “That’s the extent of it. But I hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest with you.”
Alexander’s total also was driven up by a $525 reimbursement for a registration fee to attend a National Conference of State Legislatures meeting.
Legislators are allowed to receive reimbursements for travel to conferences and associated fees, as long as the trips are approved by chamber leadership.
The data from the Comptroller General’s office shows the state paid for several legislators to attend conferences, both in South Carolina and out of state.
As The Post and Courier reported last month, the payments include the hotel fees for a dozen lawmakers — including three from Charleston — to stay at the luxury Charleston Place hotel for a September conference last year.
The Comptroller General’s Office provided the data to the newspaper in response to an S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.