State lawmaker compensation exceeds $10K salary; average is more than $30K

State legislators collect an annual salary of $10,400 each, but their total compensation averages $32,000, excluding health and retirement benefits, a recent think tank report determined.

The average compensation for the Beaufort County delegation was slightly lower at $31,687. Local lawmakers say they are not claiming as much as they could and that their compensation doesn't cover their expenses, which they often pay out of pocket for travel and for staff at their district offices.

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Mileage reimbursements and "subsistence expenses" -- which legislators can claim without any documentation to cover hotel stays and meals on days meetings are held -- account for much of the additional compensation, according to The Nerve, a project of the S.C. Policy Council. The think tank advocates "principles of limited government and free enterprise," according to its website.

The findings are based on data collected from Jan. 1, 2008, through the end of the most recent legislative session in July. State taxpayers paid $14.8 million for lawmakers' salaries and expenses over that period, according to the report.

Most lawmakers claim $12,000 a year for in-district expenses and do not have to report how it was used. Lawmakers also can collect up to $131 a day in subsistence pay, which is available even if the meetings do not take place during the 21-week legislative session. Lawmakers also can claim an additional $35 in per-diem pay on meetings that occur out of session. They fill in vouchers for reimbursement themselves and do not have to provide receipts.

There is no cumulative limit on mileage and per diems, according to the Policy Council report.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he does not claim lodging or meal expenses when he is in Columbia because he stays with his in-laws. Davis, who was sworn in January 2009, was not serving in the legislature during the report's entire data collection period and he averages $30,955 the two full years he has served. Davis said he and his colleagues run for office knowing it may require a financial sacrifice. He also said he pays a district director about $24,000 out of his own pocket to help with constituent issues.

"You don't get in to public service if you're in it for money," Davis said. "There's no money in it."

Davis said receipts should be provided if it becomes a question of public confidence, even though he doesn't think his colleagues are gaming the system.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said that at more than two hours, she has one of the longest drives to Columbia in the state, requiring her to stay overnight and buy meals during days when the legislature is in session. However, she said she never claims travel expenses or mileage when the legislature is not in session because she tries to be conscientious with taxpayers' money.

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, also said he ends up paying out of pocket for two full-time employees in his district office.

"I'd be totally for having to be tracked to give people an idea of what we spend," he said. "It's tax dollars so it should be traceable and totally up front about it."