Delayed Reaction on Bromage’s Legislative Skimming Article (Updated with moral ponderings)

I wondered why there weren’t more letters in response to what I expected would be an emotionally explosive February 3rd report from newguy Andy Bromage in 7 Days:

State Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) has a confession to make that might sound to some like political suicide.

He bills taxpayers for his “mileage” to and from the Statehouse – as much as $152 a week – even on days when he gets a ride with fellow lawmakers or lobbyists.

Zuckerman also takes full advantage of the $61 daily meal allowance afforded to legislators when they are in session, but admits he rarely spends that much on food.

“Every day I claim the mileage, and I probably shouldn’t,” says Zuckerman, a ponytailed Progressive who runs an organic vegetable farm in Hinesburg. Beyond that, though, Zuckerman isn’t apologizing for his behavior.

Ouch. It goes on.

Many lawmakers admit it doesn’t cost them $61 a day to fill their bellies, nor $101 a night to crash in Montpelier – a room at the Capital Plaza runs $106, but many lawmakers make more affordable arrangements, such as renting apartments together. Several politicians interviewed by Seven Days admitted they pocketed the difference, though none as righteously as Zuckerman.

Political parties in Burlington have become something almost akin to churches, with Democrats, Progressives and Republicans seemingly incapable of critically examining their own institutions – and certainly their own high priests and priestesses. I fully expected a nuclear explosion of emphatic, pavlovian opining divided rigidly along partisan lines and was shocked when it didn’t turn out that way.

Well, come to find out we just haven’t seen it yet. It sounds like those letters are showing up in tomorrow’s issue – and it seems there will be a lot of them.

Hopefully, there’ll be a little nuance in the discussion since the article makes it clear that the the legislators giving themselves such unofficial raises are not bound to any one party. It’s likely, though, that most letter-writers will not be able to see past David’s mug in the article’s photo and will simply vent one way or the other based on their own partisan affiliation. It’s a shame because there’s an important discussion on ethics to be had in all this. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong.

I’m sympathetic to Zuckerman’s point. As it is, only wealthy, retired, or otherwise “supported” people can really afford to be legislators. The compensation is that bad, and that makes for a deeply screwed-up system. I’ve suggested that, at the very least, it wouldn’t break the bank to at least professionalize the Senate.

But I can’t see how there can be any question that collecting this money under false pretenses is unethical, and casting it as a virtue is disturbing.

It’s effectively placing oneself above the rules (at least in spirit… don’t know about the letter). It says to readers I can unilaterally change those rules as I see fit.

It might be morally different if he was suggesting that some other person has the right to adjust their own job compensation unilaterally, but he’s making that decision for himself. To call that a conflict of interest understates it.

If Rep. Zuckerman hired a laborer for his farm and found out that this worker was routinely taking a dollar or two from Zuckerman’s own wallet to supplement what he saw as an inadequate wage, he would rightfully be pissed off. He would likely be more pissed off if that worker considered it a perfectly fine thing to do and expressed no remorse, as well as every intention of repeating the behavior. (This isn’t quite it, as the action in question isn’t sneaky. It’s not robbing someone when they’re not looking. Perhaps its more akin to passing a bad check.)

The action he defends in this piece is a bit ethically offset by the fact that Zuckerman’s self-directed pay raise is a transgression against an institution rather than a person (at least its offset in my opinion), but its still unethical.

Please don’t do it anymore. You need to be better than this. It ain’t right, and that should be the end of it.

At any rate, I’m gonna be checking out the 7 Days lettercol tomorrow. Should be quite a show.

11 thoughts on “Delayed Reaction on Bromage’s Legislative Skimming Article (Updated with moral ponderings)

  1. …people who are actually in the position of power to change the rules that govern compensation of our representatives are actively evading those rules?

    I have a serious problem with that.

  2. I agree with your general point that making a claim for that travel not taken and food not eaten is problematic, but it does comport to the ethics and intent of how the legislature intended that money to be used. As evidence I offer up the fact that the issue of “double dipping” has been public discourse before yet on a multi-partisan basis the same is done over and over.

    And the members of Vermont’s General Assembly do need to receive better compensation.

    And they shouldn’t be taking money for travel not taken and food not eaten.

    And thank you Dave for having the courage to put this in black and white.

  3. It must be the most open secret in state government.  I guess I’ve always assumed the per-diem and meals rates amounts were flat rates that legislators who are sleeping and eating away from home are entitled to as part of their otherwise nominal compensation. Am I wrong and they’re supposed to submit a claim for actual expenses and they’ve all been lying about it?  

    The annual salary for legislators is a token only.  Selectboard members in some towns make more, and they don’t have to leave their employment for several months out of the year.  Whether it’s right or wrong, if legislators can’t collect expense money and economize to pocket some of it, we’ll have to replace that income or face a legislature limited to retirees and the indpendently wealthy, as you say.  Obviously, a fair and adequate salary for the job would be the best way, coupled with compensation for some actual itemized expenses.

  4. I tend to disagree about the ethical outrage.  I find people with obscene wealth in the face of so much poverty and hardship much, much more troubling.

    If the question comes down to folks having to ‘game the system’ (which is what this is, no real theft) in order to be able to serve or leave the Legislature to only well-heeled individuals who can afford it, I side with the former.  It’s certainly not perfect or even close to ideal, but I can’t say I really find fault in people doing what they need to do.  

    Now, if we want to be outraged at people with deep pockets (or people like the governor, who make more than enough in their salary) doing this, I’m on board.

  5. From the article: “Base pay for a legislator is $625 a week, for as long as the session runs, and $118 a day for official off-season work – special sessions, summer committees, etc.”

    That’s a lot more then many other Vermonters make! I’m really sick of legislators whining that they don’t get paid enough. They should try living on minimum wage. Every legislator there made more then I did last year.

    Seven Days chose to single out Zuckerman and Illuzi, but apparently this method of skimming extra pay is widely practiced by members of all parties and I’m ashamed of all of them. I’ve worked jobs were I didn’t make as much as I felt I deserved, and many of them had mileage reimbursement programs. Not once, not ONCE, did I try to collect more reimbursement then I used.

    Politics is a funny business because it’s the voters who “fire” you over conduct like this, and according to article, the voters have re-elected legislators who have been busted doing this before. I can’t say I would be as forgiving of my legislator.

    These legislators need to admit that what they did was wrong, no matter how justified they felt it might be, it was wrong. Stop doing it, hope the voters forgive them for it, and go through the ethical channels to give themselves a pay raise if they really feel they deserve it. What’s so ironic here is that they have the power to give themselves that raise instead of cheating the reimbursement system they set up! And they wonder why so many people hate politics and don’t trust politicians…

  6. But of course the risk of my saying anything is that I will be no only a “righteous cheat” but also a whiner.

    But…I will try to shed a little more light on what I was trying to express in the Bromage article.  This will be long…as it is complicated. If you are reading…please read through to the end.

    First…it is of course a privilege to serve, none of us should be there to make a living.  And, for many of us, we do not make a living at all by being legislators, nor should that be anyones goal. However, it should also not be a privilege that only those that are retired or wealthy can afford.  If we want all perspectives to have an opportunity to serve in the legislature (and maybe there are those that do not want that), then we need to make it possible for that to occur.

    However, I did not come forth to “righteously” discuss the issue at all.  Nor was I approached by Seven Days to discuss “whether Pols are cheating the system”.  I was approached by them to discuss how legislators are paid (in light of the “pay cut” vote that we took), I should not have been so naive : )

    Nor was I smart about the photo either, but for anyone who has been on the floor of the House, you would know that if one turns the chairs to the side, due to the sloped floor, it actually tips you back (hence the reclining, appearing to be comfortable shot).  I was trying to just sit there and look “normal”, but in hindsight, obviously, I did not do a good job of that either.  Of course…the photographer actually took many pictures of me talking with and working with many folks along the way to the “photo op”, but nevermind…a shot showing me working would not have helped fuel the story.  Still…my fault…I should not have sat for the shot.

    All that is a minor point.  I spoke with Andy because I wanted to express my frustration with the pay system.  It was set up so that we would not have to vote on our pay very often because as politicians we are too afraid to take a stand on much (Pending Yankee Vote not withstanding).  With our base pay staying level for the first 9 years I was there (and then it did get voted on to move with the state employee rates), the method that was set up to raise our compensation (without any voting) was to create allowances.  These allowances are set up for mileage, meals and lodging.  With no change in base pay, but these allowances increasing every year, it set up a system where legislators in certain circumstances receive a far larger net compensation then others.  

    What stirred up the frustration for me further was that “we” passed a 5% “pay cut”, which was for political points, but when taken in the context of the increasing allowances, there was still going to be an aggregate increase to the 180 legislators due to the allowances.  On top of that, because the 5% pay cut was to our salaries, those that were gaining as a net of costs due to the allowances, were actually going to get a smaller cut than those that received a smaller net from the allowances.  

    Is this all clear?  probably not.  So let me give a couple examples. Based on 2009 rates.

    1) legislator from Montpelier.  Receives about $10,000 in base pay.  Meal allowance about $3500 for the session. Total, $13,500.  All taxed (if one lives within 50 miles of place of work, all allowances are taxable income). W-2 = $13,500 (based on 1150 hours (more on that later) it is $8.50/hour base pay, and somewhere between $8.50 and $11.73/hr  with allowances (minus actual costs))

    2) legislator from, say, Burlington.  Receives same $10,000 in base pay, same meal allowance ($3500) and a mileage allowance (whether driving, carpooling, busing, walking etc.) about $2500.  Total $16,000.  All taxed.  W-2 = $16,000 (based on same 1150 hours, pay of $8.50 to $13.91/hr (minus actual costs))

    As an added tidbit, in both of the above examples, they both do have actual expenses for food, and any variety of expenses for driving (in number 2), but they are still taxed on the total without the actual costs being accounted for.

    3) legislator from any far corner of the state (and I did look this up, so the numbers are accurate).  Same $10,000 base pay. Same $3500 for food (but not taxed).  Allowance for travel and lodging $9500. Total $23,000.  Taxable $10,000 (W-2 = $10,000). Non taxable $13,000.  

    There are expenses to be accounted for against the $7000 difference between example 2 and example 3, a room at a hotel or an apartment is to be rented for 4-5 months.

    If someone stays at the capital plaza (as some do for convenience or need) that will consume the full $100/night allowance.  For others, an apartment is approx. $700 or $800 a month (rent, utilities etc.) so $2800-$3200 a session.  (again, same 1150 hours $8.50/hr to $16.70/hr)

    Pocket difference (untaxed) of approximately $3800 to $4200.  Or 38-42% more than the base pay taxable income for the other two legislator scenarios. And, nearly double the net per hour for the Montpelier or Washington county based legislator.

    When we did the base pay cut of 5% that also means it disproportionally hit those that commute versus some/many of those that stay over.

    Now…I don’t hold that against those individuals…that is how the system has been set up in law Title 32 Ch.15 Section 1052.  But I do think that it should be changed.  Which is, a large part of what I spoke with the reporter about…it just did not get spelled out much in the article.

    I happen to think that we should get paid a base pay that floats with the statewide average.  That way…good economic times, it goes up, bad it goes down.  According to Art Woolf (who I hesitate to use…but they are the numbers that get put out there), last year was $66,600 (two earners) or $33,300 (or about $16.65 an hour for 2000 hours).  Then, remove the mileage and meals (most people are not paid to commute to work or to buy lunch).  But keep a reimbursement system (capped at the federal rate per day) for lodging expenses.  This would not be too much to administer as there would not be 3 meal chits and fuel chits etc. to be audited by staff, just rooms rental or apt. and utility bills. While some drive from farther, those that stay over do one round trip, those who are closer do 4, so the real mileage cost differences are not that great.

    With a session of 16 weeks and the Snelling center reporting that the average legislator does 15-20 hours a week outside the session, we could use the following formula to calculate the annual pay;  

    40 hours a week for 16 weeks (yes…we are there only 4 days a week, but generally they are 8-12 hours and the mondays are often legislative work as well) for 640 hours and (using the low end) 15 hours times 34 weeks 510 hours for a total of 1150 hours.  Take off another 150 hours to make sure we are not over paid., or 1000 hours.

    At $16.65 an hour that would be $16,650 (1150 hours at that rate would be $19,150), almost exactly what a commuter from Burlington (about average drive etc.) and it would all be taxed (for everyone), and we would all be compensated more equally and transparently for our work.  Those with the added expense of lodging would have that covered.  The net cost to the taxpayers would be nearly the same (those closer would get more than they are today and those farther away would not have the pocketed difference that they have today).  All income would be taxed.  The legislative pay would go up and down as the economy and the average Vermonters wages (in aggregate) go up and down.

    If it were a total salary that did not change if we went longer…it would also give the added perceived incentive to work harded/faster etc., as staying longer would not produce added pay.  Admittedly…I think there is a misperception “out there” that we are sitting around twiddling our thumbs most of the session, but this would eliminate the need for that misperception.

    Anyway…I should have known it is all too long to have expected in to have been reported.  I should have recognized that.  I also should have known more clearly that they are all, by statute, allowances and therefore should not have indicated what I should or should not have done with respect to the mileage.  I also should have made my points more concise and clear;

    1) That the pay cut was a political move to score points, even though the aggregate was not a cut,

    2)that the pay is disproportionate due to the rediculous allowance system and it should be changed, and

    3)that it is a system that no one else lives by, can understand or justify, is rediculous, and should be changed.

    I hope this explains a bit more than the article did.  My hope is that this stirs enough energy to change the structure.  I doubt it will.  This proposal would “pit” legislators against each other within Parties. I also hope that this is understandable.

    I am willing to discuss (phone or email) this with anyone. or 1-800-322-5616 at the statehouse.  

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