The state Legislature resumed its regular legislative session earlier this week after nearly two months in recess during which state lawmakers continued to receive a per diem of $161 in addition to mileage reimbursements.
Until Monday, the Legislature had been in recess since March 16, except for when it gaveled in on March 31 to suspend its business indefinitely in light of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 crisis has left tens of thousands of Louisianians without work or a paycheck and driven just as many to file for unemployment. Thanks to the Coronavirus outbreak and a global oil supply glut, state government’s financial health also could be wrecked for at least the first two quarters of the new fiscal year beginning July 1, state economists warned on Monday.
Meanwhile, Senate President Page Cortez’s office and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s office confirmed that state legislators have continued to collect their $161-per diem payments while in recess. For an 84-day session in an even-numbered year, like this one, the per diem amounts to more than $13,500, not counting mileage reimbursements or legislators’ annual salaries of $16,800 (Senate) or $22,800 (House).
For example, state Rep. Michael Echols explained he had closely monitored the amount of money paid to him in per-diem payments and travel outlays during the recess. During that time, he had collected $10,414 and some change, he said.
“On Monday, when we reconvened, I made a donation of $10,414 to a scholarship at ULM (University of Louisiana-Monroe),” said Echols, R-Monroe.
Echols explained that lawmakers were paid the per diem and mileage reimbursement regardless of whether a legislator was in Baton Rouge, as long as the session remained open.
“I made the donation because I didn’t want constituents questioning my priorities,” Echols said. “While I have been working from home and taking legislative calls, I felt it was incumbent upon me, because we are in a bad situation, that I put those mileage reimbursements and per diems toward something charitable.”
Other legislators speaking with The Ouachita Citizen defended the per diem in light of the legislative work they undertook on behalf of their districts. As state Sen. Stewart Cathey noted, legislators do not receive a per diem during months when the Legislature is not in session.
“We were technically still in session,” said Cathey, R-Sterlington. “To be fair, just because the Legislature was not in the Capitol in the traditional sense, there were still committee meetings going on and votes being made.”
“It wasn’t a 50-day vacation,” he added.
According to state Sen. Jay Morris, much of a legislator’s work remained the same, regardless of where they were.
“Whether we’re down there or here, there’s always lots to do,” said Morris, R-Monroe. “We’re still doing constituent-related work. We’re responding to emails, taking phone calls and discussing concerns about legislation. It’s not as hectic as when you are in Baton Rouge, obviously, and you are able to do it from the community in which you live.”
State Sen. Francis Thompson, the dean of the northeastern Louisiana legislative delegation, defended the per diem in light of legislators’ ongoing work for constituents. Thompson has served in the Legislature for 45 years.
“This is my only job,” said Thompson, D-Delhi. “This is what I do every day. This is my fun and it’s my work.”
Like Morris, Thompson said his legislative work during the recess included an inundation of telephone calls and work, seven days a week.
“I’ve had no less than 15 calls today from salons about their need to return to work,” Thompson said.
Thompson pointed out that, unlike other legislators, he was at the state Capitol to conduct the state’s business.
“A lot of them are not here today, but I am here,” Thompson said. “I’ve been here every day that we’ve had meetings, whether it was for the budget, appropriations, you name it.”
Though the Legislature resumed its regular session on Monday, many legislators did not answer the call but will continue collecting the per-diem payment and travel outlays. Some counts estimated that more than 20 legislators were missing from the House of Representatives earlier this week.
Many members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus are not attending the session after its leaders wrote a letter to Edwards, Cortez and Schexnayder among others last week protesting the reconvening of the session.
The Black Caucus letter asked the House and Senate to honor Edwards’ stay-at-home order and suspend the regular session until May 15.
“It could be a devastating blow to the strides made and to the safety of our residents, our staff, and members if we returned to business as (usual) prematurely,” stated the Black Caucus letter. “Confusion fosters disarray and fear. Mixed messages from public office counts our ability to truly recover, economically and physically.”
State Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, and state Rep. Fred Jones, D-Bastrop, who are each members of the Black Caucus, did not respond to The Ouachita Citizen’s requests for comment.
State Rep. Foy Gadberry, R-West Monroe, also was unavailable for comment.