No time for killer commutes -- Gazette.Net


Next time you’re thinking that your commute is bad, remember this: You could be a lawmaker from Western Maryland.

Take Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Dist. 1B) of Cumberland, whose commute to Annapolis is about 170 miles, or Del. Wendell Beitzel (R-Dist. 1A) of Accident, whose drive from his home near Deep Creek Lake to the State House tops out at about 200 miles.

“Three-hundred forty miles in one day, that’s tiresome,” Kelly said.

Of course, Kelly and Beitzel don’t make the drive every day.

Like many lawmakers, they spend most of the General Assembly session — which lasts from January until early April — living in Annapolis. As a result, Beitzel and Kelly were among the 139 legislators that spent at least $9,000 on lodging expenses during regular session this year.

In addition to their salaries of $43,500 per year, lawmakers can be reimbursed for some lodging, travel and meal costs during the session.

In 2012, they were eligible for $101 per day for lodging and $42 per day for meals during the 91 days that encompassed the regular session. Mileage was reimbursed at a rate of 55.5 cents per mile, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

Virginia’s part-time legislators earn a salary of about $18,000 per year and receive per-diem payments of $135 for House members and $178 for Senate members, while Delaware legislators make a salary of $42,750 per year, plus additional expenses up to $7,334. Pennsylvania lawmakers, who work year-round, are paid $82,026 per year, plus a per diem of $159, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most state per diem rates are tied to federal rates and fluctuate from year to year — sometimes within a year — said Morgan Cullen, policy analyst for NCSL.

“The compensation for what [lawmakers are] doing is pretty low,” Cullen said. “[This] helps them cover expenses when they’re on the job.” Lawmakers’ salaries tend to lag behind the private sector, according to Cullen.

Although such expenses sometimes can draw fire from citizens who don’t like footing the bill, they help preserve a degree of equality among lawmakers, said Laura Hussey, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In a part-time legislature like Maryland’s, reimbursement helps make sure that independently wealthy candidates aren’t the only ones who can afford to run. And if expenses must be paid, it’s better for taxpayers to do it than bankers or casino owners, for example, Hussey said.

All told, Maryland lawmakers spent $1.96 million on such expenses during this year’s regular session — up about $5,000 from 2011.

Kelly says he prefers to stay in a hotel during the session, but other lawmakers rent houses or apartments for the months they spend in Annapolis, usually returning home only on weekends.

During the session, lawmakers who stay in hotels are compensated for one trip to and from Annapolis per week; those who commute every day are reimbursed for each trip, according to DLS.

Usually, Kelly drives down Mondays, when lawmakers don’t convene until 8 p.m., and drives back Friday afternoons. Beitzel says he does the same.

“It would cost as much to reimburse me for the cost of driving back and forth as to pay for hotel room,” Beitzel said.

Beitzel said he rents a house in Annapolis during sessions, and his wife usually stays with him. Winter weather can be severe in his home district and his children are grown, so he prefers not to leave her alone, he said. He spends many mornings at Chick and Ruth’s Delly on Main Street, a local hangout with many sandwiches named for legislators and governors.

Lawmakers from the far reaches of the state aren’t the only ones who take the full lodging reimbursement.

Twenty of Montgomery County’s 28 lawmakers took the full housing reimbursement of $9,191 in this year’s regular session. And, 15 delegates from Prince George’s County took the full amount.

“I stay probably three nights a week, sometimes less, sometimes more,” said Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier, one of the 15 delegates.

Others, such as Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro, tend to spend five nights per week in Annapolis because work often runs late.

“As [Economic Matters Committee] chairman, I have a responsibility for a few hundred bills that come through the committee,” said Davis, adding that he can spend hours every night studying the issues and talking with interested parties. Staying in a nearby hotel also ensures that Davis, who is diabetic, can get the rest he needs to stay healthy.

For Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly, staying in Annapolis provides additional chances to talk and network with other lawmakers.

“It’s what my constituents expect of me,” Ivey said. The breakfast room at the Marriott, where she tends to stay, often is packed with lawmakers having impromptu meetings each morning, Ivey said.

“It’s probably where I have the most contact with Republicans,” she said.

Anne Arundel County Del. Pam Beidle (D-Dist. 32) of Linthicum says there’s often a similar, unofficial morning gathering at the Calvert House, where she stays during session. Committee chairs and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis sometimes attend.

Beidle said she commuted each day during her first couple of sessions, but missed out on that time to get to know lawmakers on other committees. It’s also become dangerous for her to drive home at night because her eyesight has worsened in recent years, Beidle said.

Some lawmakers, such as Busch and fellow Anne Arundel lawmakers Sens. John Astle (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis and Edward R. Reilly (R-Dist. 33) of Crofton, took no compensation during the 2012 session. Others listed some meals and travel as their only expenses.

Of those who did list expenses, the three lowest-spenders of 2012 were Del. Joseph Vallario Jr. (D-Dist. 27A) of Upper Marlboro ($2,490.84); Del. Theodore “Ted” Sophocleus (D-Dist. 32) of Linthicum ($2,143.86); and Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Dist. 23A) of Bowie ($1,105.02).