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In tough times, legislators must tighten their own belts

The sacred and the profane were on display in the travel records attendant to requested per diem and travel expense payments to legislators in the post-hurricane disaster environment. They payments were $113 per day until October when it went up a couple of bucks. (Meaning it averages $14.25 an hour for an eight-hour day, if they even worked that much, averaging the two months’ rates.) Per diems were around $100,000, and travel about another $50,000 on top of that.

Some applause must be given to Reps. Gary Beard and William Daniel for their refusal to accept any per diem (which might have been problematic for Daniel in any event given his recent employment by the Baton Rouge metro government). Also, the House gets credit for voluntarily giving back $1 million to state government and will absorb the costs of the special session, with Speaker Joe Salter’s blessing.

(In fact, Rep. Peppi Bruneau poked fun at the Senate’s not reciprocating by proposing an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill to reduce expenditures, where the Senate could fill in a blank with the amount of money they planned on returning when they dealt with this bill. Before it came to a vote, he withdrew it.)

But jeers must go out to the likes of Salter, House Speaker Pro Tem Yvonne Dorsey, and Rep. Bryant Hammett, who billed taxpayers the per diem for a helicopter ride. Salter and Sen. Pres. Don Hines also created special committees left and right that allowed claiming of per diems; perhaps a little more prudence and efficiency in creating and scheduling these might have saved taxpayers’ money.

This matter becoming public knowledge got under the skin of Rep. Cedric Richmond, who on a point of personal privilege right after passing the appropriations bill, complained how reports such as this continued to make the Legislature look bad by fueling perceptions of lax ethical behavior. He challenged the Legislature to stop acting defensively about these kinds of reports.

Of course, Richmond is following Louisiana elected officials’ tired gambit of shooting the messenger rather than changing its behavior. Even if things had been done more efficiently and travel taken more judiciously, the savings might only be $50,000. Still, every little bit helps and the symbolism is important when the public in many ways is being asked to curb their appetites for government service provision even as their taxes don’t go down and some crawl their ways back from near-destitution after the disasters.

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