State lawmakers’ paychecks will be a little larger next year, thanks to the actions of one state agency.
The Texas Ethics Commission, best known for its out-of-control regulation of the political speech of Texas citizens, was charged with two main responsibilities after its creation in 1991: making legislator salary increase recommendations and setting the rate of per diem collected by lawmakers while the legislature is in session.
Despite no on-the-record pleas for higher pay from any legislators, in a meeting last week the TEC approved an increase in per diem from $190 to $221 per day that the legislature is in session.
That amounts to a 16 percent increase from the amount of the previous legislative session, bringing the total amount earned by a lawmaker during the upcoming session to $30,940; this is no small amount for 140 days.
Included in this amount is the $600 per month salary earned by state lawmakers. Because a change to this amount would require voter approval, that number has not been changed. The TEC, however, is authorized to make changes to the amount of per diem without securing voter approval.
While changes to the rate have often been discussed by the TEC in recent years, the proposals have been withdrawn after lawmakers from the Senate and House weighed in against the increase. Reportedly, the commission did not receive any such instruction this year.
The increase in per diem has another effect, perhaps more significant than just an increase to politicians’ bottom line — it’s also tied to the amount of money a given lobbyist can spend on a lawmaker without having to report it.
In Texas, 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. This means that, rather than the current $114 limit, lobbyists could spend up to $132 before they need to file a report.
Forget skillet queso and margaritas at Chili’s; think champagne and oysters at Eddie V’s.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Under the “joint expenditure rule,” lobbyists are allowed to combine their allowances on the same legislature; as one former TEC Commissioner put it, “If you get enough lobbyists together in the same room, you can have quite a party.”
While the TEC has made their decision to increase legislators’ pay, lawmakers can still pass ethics legislation that would require legislators to disclose wining and dining from lobbyists in the upcoming session.