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Remember those reimbursements on Election Day

Judy Garland • Jun 10, 2018 at 8:00 AM

With mid-term elections in November, and with the new reality of our current White House occupant and his entourage, with equally compromised morals and ethics, it’s looking to be no ordinary First Tuesday in November. Healthy political interest is growing nationally and locally. Even “safe” incumbents are cautious. It’s the perfect time to look closely at incumbents who live in our communities, close at hand, and their claims of transparency.

Not unexpected is the bad news that once more our state legislators have rejected Medicaid expansion, which means hundreds of thousands of low-income people (and their hospitals) must continue coping without the health insurance that has been needlessly held up and denied now for four years. During that time nine Tennessee rural hospitals have closed (a shameful national record) due to billions lost that could have kept them serving their communities. In multiple ways all our hospitals are crippled by lack of reimbursement for uncompensated care. Have we any local legislators willing to explain that? Because I sure can’t make sense of it.

If they can’t allow us the huge benefits of Medicaid expansion, more than offsetting any eventual cost to the state, let’s turn and look at how they manage state monies for their very own care and maintenance. It’s often in the shady corners where character makes all the difference, in areas that need the most scrutiny before deciding an incumbent’s worthiness for re-election.

There was a revealing Letter to the Forum a few months back which likely made incumbent Micah Van Huss squirm. He’s chosen to remain silent, maybe hoping it’s forgotten by November. He reportedly claimed the state’s second highest 2017 per diem reimbursement, a whopping $34,200. That’s over and above the mandated $22,667 yearly salary, plus $1,000 a month “work in district” allowance, along with generous health insurance and retirement pension, optional 401k and other significant benefits unavailable to other part-time state employees. That’s some pay for a part-time job. The letter encouraged readers to access an article printed in several Tennessee newspapers that exposed this and other troubling statistics. It’s worth at least another look before Election Day. The easy-to-find article is titled: “Payments for Tennessee lawmakers expenses in 2017, most in 5 years.” It’s a revealing short and easy read.

The local letter was copied to Speaker of the House Beth Harwell. Here’s part of her response: “I agree with you — the per diem system does get abused. As Speaker, I have put safeguards in place that have saved money and cut down on wasteful spending in this area, but there are still ways for it to be abused.” (The generous in-session per day rate is $59 for meals for lawmakers within a 50-mile radius of the capitol and $220 for meals and lodging for others. Out-of-session, it‘s available at $220 for everyone.) Last year’s claims were up 17 percent, highest in five years by $370,000. Harwell admits some lawmakers abuse the easy access to those funds, benefiting themselves year-round. But she hasn’t chosen to stop it. She says, instead, “I try to lead by example.” How very nice. Will institutionalized corruption be curbed by one who simply holds herself above it, when she’s the one who could move proactively to stop it?

Many legislators count on deception to avoid public scrutiny and transparency. A favorite way in Tennessee is via the caption bill, usually late-in-session surprises that don’t require titles and skip pesky subcommittee debate. Tennessee columnist and blogger Tom Humphrey calls it “institutionalized sneakiness.” We, by happenstance, learned that a caption bill was attempted during 2018 session to increase the monthly $1,000 “work in district” allowance. Efforts like that matter because the allowance originated as fraud, as a clever masquerade for their desired but very unpopular salary increase. Unaccountable, and unnecessary with the per diem, it’s not likely to pay for much “work in district”. That “caption bill” business is always right there at hand, as a mechanism for hiding and extending the fraud at will.

Connie Ridley, director of the Tennessee Office of Legislative Administration, wants it to sound official and above board. “That stipend can be used to cover a variety of things such as rent, telephone service, utility bills, supplies for a district office, travel expenses or secretarial help.” Therefore, being for the district, it should be accounted for at both district and state level. No such thing. Timothy Hill claims he spends more than a thousand on his district office (but “it’s worth it”) even though his Facebook page reveals part-time use of Johnson County Courthouse space and volunteer staffers. (Courthouses can’t charge rent, collect utilities reimbursement, or accept donations.)

It’s common knowledge some legislators make their capitol office space serve double duty for work and sleep, manage perfectly adequate breakfasts and dinners at before-and-after-sessions interest-group events with food enticements and carpool, then pocket generous mandated per diem for food and lodging and the individual 47-cents-a-mile travel allowance.

Against the nonsense hypocrisy of phony austerity in healthcare, made even more disgusting by the leadership-tolerated rise of individual freeloading in our legislature, we have only our voices, and our vote.

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