Lawmakers should decline expense pay for this week

WHEN SENATE President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell announced that they were bringing the Legislature back to town this week to fix the law that was denying thousands of laid-off workers the federal unemployment benefits to which they were entitled, they said lawmakers would not receive a salary. That was true, but it wasn't exactly the truth.

It is true that legislators do not receive any extra salary when the regular legislative session goes into overtime. And it's true that they will not receive the $260 per day pay to which the state constitution entitles them if the governor has to call a special session. That's because Sen. McConnell and Rep. Harrell - with the blessing of the full Legislature - wisely made provisions to be able to call lawmakers back to work if needed as an extension of the regular session.

But while they won't get a paycheck for each extra day in town, legislators are eligible to be reimbursed for mileage for one round trip to and from Columbia and to receive $132 per day, which is supposed to offset the cost of hotel and meal costs.

Now, normally we don't begrudge legislators these reimbursements - though we've never entirely understood why those who live within easy driving distance of the State House need to be reimbursed for the costs of hotel rooms they don't rent - but these are not normal times.

In the first place, lawmakers have had to slash spending throughout state government, resulting in some cases in the elimination of travel altogether and in other cases even more critical expenses. Everybody is having to do more with less, which raises the question of why legislators should receive the same liberal reimbursements they always have.

When you add that to the fact that the Legislature is back in town to fix a mistake of its own making - or unmaking - then there really is no way to justify this expense.

We can point fingers all day at others who made it more difficult for legislators to do their jobs - Gov. Mark Sanford and the leadership at the Employment Security Commission certainly deserve a lot of blame - but it was ultimately the Legislature that failed.

Only the Legislature could change a formula in state law that determines whether laid-off South Carolinians can receive extended unemployment benefits from the federal government. Legislators were warned about this, although not by the people whose job it was to warn them. The House even had a chance to pass a bill to make the change - although there was a lot of other stuff in the bill that a lot of them disliked, mostly without good reason. And nothing was done.

Because of the procedural rules that limit the actions lawmakers can take this week, it would be extremely difficult to bar the subsistence payments. But there's nothing to stop each legislator from declining the money. Absent a convincing case that they cannot afford to pay their hotel bill themselves, that is what every one of them should do.