At their meeting Friday in Austin, the Texas Ethics Commission will consider increasing lawmakers’ compensation, a move that will also make it easier for lobbyists to wine and dine them.
The TEC is debating an increase in the per diem, a daily stipend that lawmakers receive while they are in Austin for the 140 day session and for committee meetings that occur during the interim. Intended to cover expenses incurred as a result of serving in office, the compensation is in addition to their $7,200 annual salary.
Currently the per diem is $190 per day, up from $150 per day just two sessions ago. The TEC commissioners will be debating whether to increase that amount to $217 per day, or leave it where it is. There is no proposal to decrease the payment on the agenda.
That’s about a $4,000 raise for the session.
Due to an insidious linkage in state law between the per diem and the lobbyist gift allowance, lobbyists are allowed to spend up to three-fifths the amount of the per diem on food, beverages, and “entertainment” per legislator per day without disclosing any legislator’s name on their required reports. As a result, if the TEC adopts its proposal, it would allow each lobbyist to spend up to $130 per day on each legislator without voters ever knowing about the kickback.
Even worse, if more than one lobbyist is present, the cost can be split between them, allowing them to spend multiples of $130 more on each legislator. To directly quote a TEC Commissioner, “If you get enough lobbyists together in the same room, you can have quite a party.”
Though lawmakers often claim they aren’t in office for the money, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t leave office richer than when they came in. Business connections forged while they are in office, insider deals, opportunities for lobby work, and a generous pension system all combine to ensure lawmakers receive more compensation than advertised.
Indeed, for many of them, the legislative session is more like summer camp than a job. They come in, shake hands, rub elbows, and attend cocktail parties hosted by lobbyists who tell them how fantastic they are. They have field trips where they can play soldier at Fort Hood or a flag football game at A&M. Many lawmakers go right from the parties on to the floor to vote—and you can tell.
Such examples aren’t exceptions, they’re the norm.
Despite lawmaker’s claims, most of them aren’t “working hard” down in Austin. The majority of the work of reading, writing, and analyzing bills is accomplished by staff and lawyers employed by the legislature. For those members who pledge fealty to the House leadership, they tend to simply follow the lead of bill authors on how to vote. And like middle school, if it’s a tough one, you can often lean over to your desk mate and ask them how you should vote.
That’s if they haven’t already decided for you.
If a lawmaker changes his mind or wants to ensure he’s on the “winning team,” he can blame his voting machine and get a do-over.
Increasing the per diem only makes lawmakers’ sinecure more comfortable.
Most lawmakers don’t deserve the allowance they already receive and the last thing that the TEC should do is increase the amount that lobbyists can give them under the table. As the first meeting for Abbott appointees Chad Craycraft and Katie Kennedy, all eyes will be closely watching how they vote on this fundamental issue.