A major responsibility of a Maryland legislator is determining the best use of state revenue, and in order to do this the federal and state government allows them to spend millions.
The 11 legislators who represent at least a portion of Carroll County racked up a $120,000 bill during the 90-day legislative session that ran from Jan. 13 to mid-April for lodging, meals and mileage. The state's 188 lawmakers combined for about $2 million, most of which was used for hotel rooms.
This information was obtained through a public information request submitted to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services by the Capital Gazette.
Each legislator is allowed $100 per day for lodging, $45 a day for food and 57.5 cents per mile traveled.
The general consensus from Carroll legislators, all Republicans, is that these allowances are in place to ensure they are productive while in Annapolis, and the majority of legislators take full advantage of them.
Of the 11, seven spent the maximum of $9,100 on hotels, and one, Del. David Vogt III, R-District 4, spent $9,000. Two legislators who did not spend the maximum amount — Del. April Rose, R-District 5, and Del. Barrie Ciliberti, R-District 4 — both replaced former legislators who had been tapped for Gov. Larry Hogan's administration after the session had begun.
The other legislator who did not — and spent the least on lodging — was Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, who spent $1,500.
Ready, who has a wife and young children, said he prefers to make the daily commute to Annapolis rather than book a room there so that he can spend more time with his family. However, he understands those who prefer to avoid the trip.
"There is a good reason for people to stay down there," Ready said. "It's a challenge to make the drive home. I want to be frugal and responsible, but I'm hesitant to criticize those who may be a little older and have grown families. It's totally legitimate for legislators who live far away with traffic. It's fair for them to stay down there or they couldn't [serve]."
Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, said she uses the full lodging allowance because she could not serve the needs of her community and constituents if she is not in Annapolis.
"You've got so much to do, and I don't intend to come home much because I have so much going on [in Annapolis]," Krebs said.
The state follows federal standards in regard to lodging expenses, she said. The federal government sets a limit of $100 per day and has an arrangement with hotels to allow not only legislators but anyone who wishes to stay at a hotel during a legislative session to take advantage of the rate, Krebs said.
"There are some who don't stay down there all the time but still get the 90 days or they don't get the rate," Krebs said.
Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, said he spent the full allowance on hotels in order to acclimate himself to the State House environment. Shoemaker, who won election in November to his first term, said he expects to spend less next session.
"I tried that commute and spending one-and-a half hours to two [hours] each way in bumper-to-bumper traffic and in the snow — that wasn't real appealing," Shoemaker said. "Hopefully the weather will cooperate [next session] and I won't have the freshman session to worry about anymore, and I'll have an idea of the lay of the land and be able to plan accordingly."
Of lodging, meals and mileage expenses, mileage was by far the least for Carroll's 11 legislators, totaling about $11,000. Ready received the most mileage reimbursements, with slightly more than $3,000, but by not spending the full hotel expenses, he managed to save more than $5,000 of taxpayers' money.
Unlike many private companies, legislators are compensated for their drive time to and from the State House each day if they don't spend the full amount on lodging, he said. They are only allowed one round trip in mileage reimbursements if they choose to spend the $9,100.
"The truth is you're going to Annapolis to do the job," Ready said. "The bottom line is this: You don't want the General Assembly to be a place that only those who are independently wealthy to serve. It's an honor to serve, and [these expenses] are a tool to ensure there is a mix in the legislature."
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on transparency issues in the state, said these allowances in part stem from many of the legislators being under-compensated financially. Presiding officers — House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-District 30A, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-District 27 — make $58,718, whereas all other legislators earn $45,207, which is essentially part-time pay for a full-time job, Bevan-Dangel said.
However, legislators who live within a normal commute range — about an hour in Maryland — should not receive mileage reimbursement for the drive time, Bevan-Dangel said.
"Geographic indexing needs to be instituted to reimburse for some of these things," she said.
"The whole system is they work for 90 days then go home and work for another job, but many legislators are having a hard time holding another job. We need to take a holistic look at the whole thing to see if it's equitable."
Shoemaker said that if a legislator lives within 50 miles of Annapolis they are granted mileage reimbursements but they are taxed. It is only if the commute is more than 50 miles — Westminster is about 57 miles from the State House — that it becomes tax exempt, he said. Still, he said he doesn't see a need for mileage to be paid just to go to work. He received $901 in mileage reimbursements during the session.
"Actually, it would be my preference to see it go away, but getting it through the General Assembly would be a tough nut to crack," Shoemaker said. "In the overall scheme of things, we have bigger fish to fry."
Shoemaker, a former Carroll County commissioner, was against local elected officials receiving mileage reimbursements and voted to eliminate the practice in Carroll in 2012.
Krebs said travel to and from Annapolis is the only mileage reimbursement she has ever put in and the only type of travel she is aware of that qualifies for mileage reimbursement. Each legislator also receives a $750 in-district travel allowance check — which is taxed — at the start of session and is to be used for travel within their legislative district, she said.
Food for thought
Each legislator is allotted $45 per day for food, and the majority use almost all of it.
James Goff, manager of fiscal operations for the Department of Legislative Services, wrote in an email that the weekends are not normally included as days, leaving 70 days when a legislator may receive the $45 per diem for meals. This totals $3,150.
Nine of Carroll's 11 legislators spent at least $2,000 on food. Del. Kathy Afzali, R-District 4, spent $1,400 and Rose spent $900.
For those who spend the majority of the session in Annapolis, it is necessary for legislators to spend this kind of money, especially because it's not feasible to go grocery shopping, Shoemaker said.
"Unless you're going to cook out of your microwave in the hotel room, you are going to eat in Annapolis, and the restaurants aren't cheap, by the way," he said.
Ready said he now takes the full allowance on meals, though he didn't always. Legislators have the option to either request the full meal allowance at the beginning of session or file expense reports as they spend money.
"There are expenses to being in Annapolis, and we do have to eat while we are down there," Ready said. "It's part of the compensation package. But if you can do without it, it's good to do without it. You are taxed on it, so it's not a freebie. The last couple years, I've taken it totally because it doesn't quite cut out the costs but it offsets a lot of additional costs — both while you are in Annapolis but also dealing going back and forth from home."
Rose said she intends on being as frugal as possible.
"We'll have to see how next session goes and what seems reasonable," she said. "It's the taxpayers' money, and I bristle at the word 'perk.' We shouldn't look at it as an entitled perk."
Krebs said the General Assembly instituted per diem for food to eliminate some of the influence lobbyists used to have on the state.
"What happened years ago, they used to let lobbyists take you out," she said. "Years ago, that got to be ridiculous, so now you can't take any meals from lobbyists if you're from the General Assembly. That's the spirit of the allowances: so they can pay for their own."
Bevan-Dangel's comments reflected those of Shoemaker with regards to the cost of living in Annapolis is higher than in most parts of the state.
"The problem with the meals program is it's expensive to get meals in Annapolis," she said. "But what we should be comping is everyday meals. Certainly they don't need to be eating at Ruth's Chris [Steakhouse], so there needs to be an equitable amount reimbursed."
She disagrees with many lawmakers that these expense allowances are part of a "perk" package that goes with being a legislator.
"It should be at the forefront of their minds that this is their taxpayers' hard-earned money," Bevan-Dangel said. "We trust them to make a fiscally responsible budget, and they need to show fiscal responsibility in their own expenditures. This is not a perk. This is a reimbursement. We want to repay legitimate expenses, but this is not a perk."
Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook contributed to this article.