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Two special sessions likely cost Texans more than $1.6 million

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Texas lawmakers spent months searching for ways to cut state expenses — and then racked up around $1.6 million in new costs during two special sessions.

Now they are on the verge of facing a third special session, if Gov. Rick Perry keeps his word to call them back if they fail to pass a crucial transportation funding bill. It’ll take a political miracle for the bill to be approved today after the House failed to approve it Monday.

“Most people [run for office] based on the assumption that this is what they will do for five months out of the year,” said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. “Now, the fact is that [lawmakers] have had to make a trip to Austin every week since December.

“There is a high level of frustration among members,” he said. “It’s interfering with people’s lives, and now there’s a chance we could go back for a third.”

That frustration may be spilling over into other areas, as some lawmakers are sounding off how much it costs the state each time they are called back to work.

Each special session, which may last up to 30 days, costs around $800,000 once the 150 House members and 31 Senate members receive $150 a day for living expenses, as well as a small travel allowance.

“I am upset at the cost,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. “I think we need to remember why we are having this extra special session. One state senator, in an effort to capture national attention, forced this special session.

“I firmly believe that Sen. Wendy Davis should reimburse the taxpayers for the entire cost of the second special session,” he said. “I am sure that she has raised enough money at her Washington, D.C., fundraiser to cover the cost.”

Davis dismissed the criticism, saying, “I firmly believe in fair and equal pay and being responsible with taxpayer dollars. I will request and accept state per diem pay only for days I am in Austin for official duties. Any compensation provided me in error will be promptly returned to the state.”

She said it’s the state’s Republican leaders who are to blame for special sessions.

“It's unfortunate that the leadership in power squandered taxpayer dollars pursuing partisan politics before Texas priorities and forced an unnecessary special session,” Davis said.

The first special session ended June 25 amid chaos, as state senators tried to take a last-minute vote on a comprehensive abortion bill after ending a more than 11-hour filibuster by Davis, D-Fort Worth. Many in the gallery yelled and screamed, drowning out senators’ voices and preventing them from knowing whether they had voted for the measure.

Perry quickly called lawmakers back to work to address the abortion bill as well as two other measures that had died: transportation funding and sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Money matters

House and Senate members are limited to a $7,200 annual salary, according to the Texas Constitution. The “per diem” is designed to help pay for expenses such as food or housing for lawmakers in Austin.

During a typical year, with a 140-day regular legislative session, lawmakers take home $21,000 in per diem payments. Each special session adds another $4,500 to that total.

“Special sessions are costly for a variety of factors… which is why it was so irresponsible of Gov. Perry to call special session after special session to address purely political issues like redistricting and abortion,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

Legislative work is more sporadic during special sessions than the regular session; members might meet one day one week and not be called back to work for several days.

As a result, some members declined the $150 per diem on days they weren’t in Austin.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, for instance, said he declined the per diem for the two-week recess during the first special session. After that, though, he said he has traveled to Austin several times and put in a number of hours of work, so he has collected the per diem.

“I certainly understand the frustration of many Texans who think we should not be spending so much money during these special session,” Krause said. “They do cost money.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, also has declined some per diem payments.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she accepts the per diem but said she wishes the Legislature could have wrapped up its work earlier.

“It frustrates me that we were prevented from carrying out our deliberations because of outbursts in the gallery,” she said, referring to the last night of the first special session.

And Nelson noted that the per diem doesn’t cover all of state officials’ out-of-pocket costs.

“But we all enter public service knowing that it is definitely not for the money,” she said. “Ironically, my annual salary as a senator is the same as when I was a first-year teacher.”

Different reasons

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said she accepts her per diem payments to help whittle down the cost on the apartment she leases, which she said is less expensive than paying for a hotel room every night she’s in Austin.

Burnam said he is taking the money “based on the premise that for two months now, I’ve been treated like a yoyo — being jerked bath and forth, never knowing what plans I can make for my life.”

Turner said he is accepting the per diem payments because he has spent “virtually every day during the past two months working on legislative business.”

But Capriglione said he has rejected the per diem amount for any day he wasn’t at the Capitol during both special sessions.

“I felt that it was inappropriate to take the reimbursement for the number of days that I am not at the Capitol performing state duties.

“In and out of the specials, I am continuously performing state duties in my district, but I won’t take the excess per diem,” he said. “I was elected as a fiscal conservative, and I am trying to keep as small an expense as possible to the taxpayer.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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