This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Walk into the Texas Capitol and you’d hardly know the state Legislature has been called into a 30-day special session. The Texas House is in recess until June 17, and the Senate is taking most of the week off.
But every day of the special session, taxpayers are being billed for “per diem” payments that legislators are entitled to receive whether or not they’re at the Capitol — or even in the state. If every eligible lawmaker were to take full payment for a month, those costs alone would exceed $800,000. Add travel costs to and from Austin, the staging of redistricting committee hearings around the state and legal fees paid to outside lawyers and the pricetag could easily blow past $1 million. But the total cost to taxpayers won’t be known until the session ends later this month.
Given the exceedingly light schedule, a handful of House members and at least one senator — Republican Brian Birdwell of Granbury — have instructed their accounting departments not to pay them. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a multimillionaire who has been on a personal trip to France, also is forfeiting the per diem payments, officials said.
Dewhurst went to Normandy for the dedication of a museum he helped build to honor D-Day heroes — including his own father. Before he left, Dewhurst urged Gov. Rick Perry to add a series of conservative proposals to the special session agenda. Perry, who can call an unlimited number of 30-day sessions and exclusively determines what can be debated during them, hasn't said if he'll expand the list of eligible items beyond redistricting.
Dewhurst "didn't make the final decision to make this trip until it was clear there would be no floor action and has kept in regular contact with his staff regarding events relating to the special session,” his spokesman Travis Considine said. “His goal is to complete the unfinished business remaining from an already-successful session, and he is not going to take any per diem during the special session." Dewhurst returns from France on Sunday, Considine said.
In the House, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said he has told fellow members that he directed accountants to withhold his per diem payments for the long stretches in which the House is not meeting.
“I’m not telling anybody they have to do it. I’m just telling them I’m doing it,” Geren said. “I’m going to be home or fishing, and I don’t think I need to get paid for that.”
While lawmakers are paid a salary of just $7,200 a year, they receive per diem payments — currently set at $150 a day — for "each day during each regular and special session of the Legislature," per Article III, Section 24 of the Texas Constitution. The per diem payments are automatically processed unless lawmakers instruct their accounting departments to withhold the money, officials said.
So in odd-numbered years, when lawmakers must meet in regular session for 140 days, lawmakers (including the lieutenant governor) receive an extra $21,000 at the current per diem rate. Add a special session to that and the amount rises by $4,500, for total compensation of $32,700. (They also get state-provided health insurance and, after eight years, a lucrative pension.)
Perry called the special session on redistricting the day the regular session ended on May 27. Calls to his office were not immediately returned.