By The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi taxpayers shelled out more than $18.5 million on legislative expenses for the past year, with much of the price tag driven by lawmakers’ salaries and travel.
The state auditor’s annual report on the Legislature shows nearly $11.4 million was paid to lawmakers from May 2010 through the end of this year’s regular session in April. The total includes a one-day special session held in August that cost the state about $52,500.
Legislative employees and operating expenses for the year tacked on an additional $5.7 million.
The total amounts they were paid, which range from about $33,200 to more than $60,000 per person, are largely intended to cover expenses such as gas, lodging and meals while lawmakers are in session.
State Sen. Merle Flowers, a Republican from Southaven who received $53,587, said the totals often are reflective of distance from Jackson and standing in the Legislature.
“It’s just going to be natural for those of us from north Mississippi to have more in mileage,” he said.
Committee assignments also impact the number of out-of-session meetings that members must attend.
“If you don’t have any responsibilities, then you probably won’t travel as much,” Flowers said. “I serve on 10 committees, so the lieutenant governor keeps me busy.”
But lawmakers’ expenses are up nearly half a million dollars from last year, even as the state faced a budget crisis and lawmakers trimmed agency appropriations.
Most of the increase fell under “mileage, travel and meeting expense,” with about $300,000 of it paid to senators and $100,000 to House members.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, a Democrat from Rienzi in north Mississippi who presides over the 122-member chamber, earned $101,181 in salary and expenses — a bump of about $3,100 over last year.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican from Brandon who presides over the 52-member Senate, received $81,748, an increase of about $7,200. Bryant had the smallest travel tab, other than those who were not in office the full year.
Mississippi has a part-time Legislature. Lawmakers are paid a $10,000 salary for the session, plus a $1,500 payment each month out of session and $75 a day for special sessions, plus expenses.
Several lawmakers decided to give part of their pay to the general fund.
State Sen. Giles Ward, R-Louisville, returned the most, giving 10 percent of his salary for the regular session to the general fund and 80 percent of his pay for the August special session.
He said he saw it as a “matter of principle.”
“My philosophy is that I ran for this job, and if we have to go back for a special session, that’s just part of the job,” he said. “That’s just my personal opinion, and it doesn’t reflect on anyone else’s decisions.”
As the Legislature prepared to trim budgets across state government, Ward introduced a bill last year that would have cut lawmakers’ salaries by 10 percent.
The bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
“I was sharing this story in my Sunday school class, and someone said ‘Why don’t you do it yourself?’ So I did,” Ward said. “I think it’s important for those of us in the Legislature to make the first steps to show good faith.”
State Auditor’s Office, http://www.osa.state.ms.us