LINCOLN — State Sen. Abbie Cornett burned through a lot of gas making the 58.3-mile trip from her Bellevue home to the State Capitol this year.
She drove down in her Ford Expedition almost every day of the recent legislative session.
The nights lawmakers worked late and she stayed over in a Lincoln hotel were even more costly.
Cornett would have been hard-pressed to cover those expenses on her $12,000-a-year legislative salary, especially after paying full cost for health insurance.
But the Legislature's system of expense payments helps defray lawmakers' costs of serving.
Legislative records show that Nebraska lawmakers collected $406,178 in expense payments for this year's session, an average of $8,289 each.
Senators say the expense money makes it more feasible for people to serve in Nebraska's citizen Legislature. Lawmakers receive no state-paid benefits.
“It would be pretty difficult to serve without it,” said Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha.
Mike Groene, president of the Western Nebraska Taxpayers Association and a frequent critic of the Legislature, said the expense payments appear reasonable.
Especially in a rural state, he said, lawmakers should get reimbursed for travel costs.
“You can't expect people to run for office for $12,000 and pay for their own gas,” he said. “People can't afford to lose money.”
Payments to individual senators vary based on how far they live from the Capitol.
Sen. John Harms, who has a 415-mile drive from his Scottsbluff home, received the largest payment: $14,981.
The smallest typically goes to Sen. Bill Avery, who claims no mileage and often walks the quarter-mile from his Lincoln home to the Capitol.
But the smallest payment this year — $1,244 — went to Sen. Danielle Conrad, with a 3.4-mile commute from her Lincoln home. She missed several days after the birth of her daughter.
Lawmakers started getting expenses in 1984, after a four-year battle by then-Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha resulted in a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that such payments did not violate constitutional limits on legislative pay.
The court said lawmakers could be reimbursed for “expenses incurred in connection with the performance of their duties.”
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk said the expense payments help offset the costs of serving but don't remove the need for a legislative pay increase.
A proposed constitutional amendment boosting senators' salaries to $22,500 will be on the November ballot. Voters last approved a pay raise in 1988.
Even with expense payments, many people cannot afford to serve, Flood said.
Senators get per diem payments as well as mileage, subject to a number of limitations.
The 39 senators who live more than 50 miles from the Capitol get $123 for each day of a legislative session. Those living closer get $46 per day.
The per diem amounts are based on what the federal government allows its employees when they are in Lincoln on government business.
In 1984, the rates were $55 for senators over 50 miles away and $25 for the rest. Five years ago, the rates were at $99 and $39.
Mileage is paid at the rate set for state employees: currently, 55.5 cents per mile.
Senators living more than 50 miles from the Capitol get paid for one round-trip home per week during the session.
Those living closer are paid for one trip each legislative day.
Nordquist and Cornett, like most Omaha-area senators, live farther than 50 miles but make the commute almost every day.
Most of their per diem goes to pay for gas and vehicle maintenance, as well as occasional overnights in Lincoln.
Flood makes the 120-mile trip home only once a week. His per diem helps pay for the Lincoln condominium he purchased to live in during the session.
With no commuting expenses to pay, Avery uses his per diem for meals and other miscellaneous expenses.
Legislative policy allows the per diem to be used for the kinds of work-related expenses that are deductible for federal income taxes.
Although the per diem is paid only during legislative sessions, it can be used for expenses throughout the year.
An outside accounting firm reviews senators' records once every two years to verify that lawmakers are actually spending as much as they receive.
Contact the writer: